Jean Valjean and the Face of God

tn-500_14.01_mir_les_mis_colm3949At the end of Les Misérables, as Jean Valjean lies dying before his beloved daughter Cosette and her husband-to-be Marius, the musical swells to a beautiful arrangement of different musical themes sung by Valjean, a vision of Fantine, and reprising his earlier role, the Bishop of Digne. In this stirring scene, Valjean commends Marius and Cosette to marry and reveals his long-held secret that he, in fact, is prisoner #24601, tired from a life of running from the law. As Valjean sings his last confession, Fantine appears to welcome him into heaven, accompanying his reflection on the grace he has been shown and his attempt to live a life worthy of it. At last, Valjean sees the Bishop, the noble priest who initiated the entirety of Valjean’s redemption by welcoming him to his home, forgiving his crime, and graciously setting him free, transforming him into a new man whose soul has been “bought for God”. Notice the kindness and sacrificial love of the priest as he gives Valjean the candlesticks at the beginning of the musical:

“But my friend you left so early / Surely something slipped your mind / You forgot I gave these also / Would you leave the best behind?”

Here, in Valjean’s final hour, he experiences an almost beatific vision of the priest, surrounded gloriously in candlelight in the 2012 film adaptation, as they sing one of the show’s most gorgeous lines:

“To love another person is to see the face of God”

maxresdefaultNo statement better captures the spiritual center of the story as Valjean fully takes the measure of how strong grace truly is. One simple act of kindness, unmerited yet fully proffered, has the power to transform a filthy sinner into a forgiven saint. Even in his humble and lowly position, the priest became a vessel for Valjean and, by extension, the audience to see the very face of God through his indefinable love for an embittered thief.

For such wild forgiveness and abundant grace effuses from our Father, the Almighty God who turns slaves into sons and frees us all from the burdens of our many years in prison. Like the Bishop, God offers rest for the weary, comfort for the resentful, love for the unloving and unlovely. Like the Bishop, God transforms the nameless prisoner (24601) into a new man, restored to life, saved not by good works but to them, called to let the grace with which he’s been filled spill over to another. When Valjean is forgiven, he is free to shed his old life and commit himself to a life of service, redeeming little Cosette from her equally dismal life.

In I John 3:16, the apostle describes this love of the Father: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” This selflessness characterizes love and, as God is love, draws us closer to His nature. Since we are called to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), learning to love others as He is love is the way forward.

In Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Incidentally, this truth explains Javert’s ultimate self-destruction. No man so bound to the duties of the law can function, for the law is fulfilled in love; the only way Christ could fulfill the law is in his final breath dying for His friends. As Javert’s inability to cope with such love and grace becomes his undoing, Valjean’s embrace of it in giving his life to Cosette, Marius, and the dozens of young boys at the barricades becomes his way to salvation.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling . As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4:8-10).

Stumbling into Symphonies

Symphony-piano-4639669-2560-1896In a conversation there are rules, and we all know them. Sometimes these rules are accidentally bent, supposing two people begin talking at the same time or no one knows just how to end it and walk away. Sometimes air lingers between the two people, causing an uncomfortable pause. Or maybe all the words blend into a unified sound of excitement as the two reunite in a frenzy of gushing phrases, tripping and spilling over each other’s hearts as they speak.

Often in these moments, something spiritual happens, like music. One gives and the other takes. One begins where the other ends. The excitement of one melts into the disappointment of another. When we speak, we work together, borrowing pieces of each other and weaving them into ourselves like toddlers rolling Play-Doh into multi-colored globes. In music, artists begin with a riff, a hook that seems compelling, and they play it over and over. Perhaps another will bring in a complementing piano line, and the drummer joins the jazz. Over time a conversation begins, a game of give-and-take that grows into a single song, each piece adding his share. As they work together, they sustain one another, each one holding the other to form a unified voice of music. As they play, they roll their unique colors and hues into a single shape, pulling together to the very center.

In this shared moment lies a spiritual truth, a beautiful truth of Christ that works like music. Like a conversation, our relationship with Jesus hinges on this back-and-forth, this dance. Yet, by no means is this relationship equal. As Jesus reaches out to us, we are drawn to His righteousness and perfect holiness. And as we understand our sinfulness, we call out to Him who saves. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Silver Chair through the mouth of the lion Aslan, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.” Jesus calls, and we are drawn; his calling gives us the power to call back. We, the prodigal sons and daughters, limp home, burdened, lonely, and beyond hope, simply to be met by our Father racing to meet us and hold us close, tears upon tears of highest joy. Our homecoming becomes a conversation, a living conversation in which the broken is repaired, the sad are filled with joy, and the end of our selfishness is the beginning of His grace. The Father calls to us, and we are welcomed home. We enter into a most gloriously unequal dialogue with the LORD, a vibrant relationship in which “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). A relationship with the Father “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). A Father “who gives us all things richly to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17).

Like music, our salvation becomes our symphony. We offer our instruments, broken and tattered though they may be, and the LORD makes music. We give Him our fears and worries in prayer, and He provides peace and joy in return. In this conversation we learn to give ourselves wholly to Him, forever grateful that He gave Himself wholly to us.