One aspect of the First Holy Communion class I was leading on Sunday struck me as I was teaching: the slavery of sin. It brought back an element of a retreat I did a few years ago.
During this week, I was preparing a Bible Study on Galatians that I was leading a few weeks later. The passages I was given by my retreat director and the themes of Galatians intertwined and danced together to produce an amazing whole. Freedom and love became juxtaposed with the slavery of sin.
In one of my prayer sessions, half way through my retreat, I remembered a film I had seen many years ago. “Unleashed” stars Jet Li as a young man who is held captive by a gangster. Danny has been trained since he was young in martial arts (this is a Jet Li movie after all). Bart, the gangster, keeps him locked in a cage, wearing a dog’s collar. With it on he is docile and obedient. When it comes off, Danny attacks whomever he is directed to hurt, leaving a trail of devastation. In the cage Danny eats out of tins and lives in filth. He spends long hours training, almost mindlessly. He is a perplexing character who’s life is one of utter slavery. During the film Danny escapes and comes across blind piano tuner, Sam and his talented step-daughter, Victoria. Slowly Danny re-discovers his humanity in a safe and loving home. It is the love and kindness that give Danny freedom and start to bring out the person he was always meant to be. It is a beautiful film and the performances from the whole cast are incredible.
On my retreat what struck me is that it works as picture of sin and spiritual freedom. When Danny is kept as “a human attack dog” he is literally a captive, yet he knows no better, having no memory of his previous life. His docility is controlled and for a purpose and when the collar comes off he does terrible things. When, in the middle of the film Victoria removes the collar, Danny flinches, certain that he will hurt her. He is not sure that he is able control his actions, even towards those he loves.
When he escapes and finds Sam and Victoria, he recovered not only his freedom from the literal cage and from the tyranny of the violence he is forced to commit but also a freedom to love and be loved, a freedom to discover who he really is.
Sin works in this way. It keeps us captive and under its rule we do terrible things. We even lose control so that we almost cannot be any different and we know no better. Only when we come into contact with God’s transforming love can we be set free.
In the film there are several moments when Danny has to make a choice, to return to violence or to stay free. Sometimes in our life the chains of sin are ones we choose to keep. God cannot forcibly remove our sin because he has given us free will. We have to consent. Sometimes it is easier to stay with the habits and patterns of sin that we know than to let God remove our chains and to love us into being. It is a slow and difficult process, full of fear and trepidation for us. However this is the path we are called to. It is a path we focus on in Lent, where we are more aware of our own failings and see in all its fullness God’s love for us. Our freedom is won in Holy Week by Christ’s sacrifice of himself and fulfilled in the garden on the Sunday morning when the women find the empty tomb. We, like Danny, have a choice. We can continue to live in a cage doing damage to ourselves and those around us or we can recognise our prison for what it is and allow love to set us free. Lent is a reality check, when we can look at ourselves and see the areas of our life where we are captive to sin and look at Christ and see our salvation.