Les Miserables and Reflections on a New Year’s Eve
I don’t know how I managed to live 26 years without experiencing Les Miserables but that seems to be the way it worked out. It may be that I was supposed to read it for a high school or college course and somehow managed to write a paper without cracking open the book, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. So, today, when I saw in the theater the blockbuster film which opened on Christmas Day, I was pretty impressed. Not that I was expecting any less. I’m well aware that the musical version of Victor Hugo’s massive tome has been highly-acclaimed for many years, I’ve just never had the chance to partake. Now, however, I plan to fully avail myself of all acquirable options (literary, musical or otherwise).
Les Miserables–at least the condensed representation provided by the film–is a story of grace and redemption; a realization of that hallowed phrase “the meek will inherit the earth”. Literally translated “the miserable ones”, the book/film’s title does not appear, at first, to offer a very hopeful ending. Nonetheless, I came away from the film incredibly uplifted. And not just because the vocal performances (filmed live) were awe-inspiringly empathetic. I plan on reading the book immediately (so if my summation is completely off-base, I will discover that at some point in the near future) but, upon first impression, I was struck by the underlying chord of grace that inspired the entire story. From the outset of the film, the main character (Jean Valjean) is presented with several situations in which either his commitment to God or reliance on a humanistic system of values must take precedent. In all situations, he chooses his commitment to God: pursuing truth over lies, mercy over justice and sacrifice over selfishness.
Whatever Victor Hugo’s religious views may have been (and from a brief review of Wikipedia, I can see they were varied), there is a story within his story that recalls the notions of the redemption we are given in Christ. We are enslaved to the Law; we are shown Grace, completely undeserving; the Law is conquered by the shedding of blood; we are brought into a restored relationship, given over and again “one more day” to live by this Grace, continually sanctified, until we are brought into glory by death. This summary follows Jean’s path from the slavery that is the punishment of his sins–a punishment required by the Law–to a situation where he is shown grace (by a priest, assumedly of the Catholic church). From that point, Jean dedicates his life to God though he is still on the run from the threat of the law (his past sins still haunt him), represented by Inspector Javert. Later on in the film, Jean has the opportunity to kill Javert, to rid himself of the threat of death at the hand of the Inspector; yet, Jean spares Javert’s life and goes on to risk his own life to save that of his adopted daughter Colette’s beloved Marius. There are so many allegories here I could go on forever (and maybe I will at some point), but what I’m getting to really is more relevant than just reiterating how great the story is.
The film closes with Jean’s death and entrance into a version of heaven in which previously fallen protagonists (“The Miserables Ones”) in the story have returned in full force, singing the anthem (from the musical) which had spurred them to fight and die in revolution against the oppressive French government. The lyrics say:
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
This may be where the book and the musical/film diverge, but this finale was especially poignant to me because thoughts like this have been on my mind lately. Not necessarily of death (although that’s part of it), but of why we’re here, what we’re meant to do, and how we’re to use the time with which we are blessed. And by “we” in particular, I mean Christians: followers of Christ and lovers of His Word; those who are living for Him in this world, in the world but not of it. I’m not saying the French Revolution needs repeat itself on a daily basis to spur this kind of reaction to a humanistic, materialistic environment. But I can certainly see the parallels in our society today and the message is relevant today as it was when written. We will always be presented with situations in this world where we must choose between might and right; law and grace; God’s path or man’s path — and we may endure suffering for it. Yet, as the particularly applicable lyrics say, “For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies…. they will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord!”. Even for those who have been maligned and oppressed on this earth, our hope is in a power greater than any government (especially greater than that of the French!), and our courage lies not in the colors of a flag or in wealth or even the relationships of friends and family, but in the shed blood of Christ and His mediation for us in the courts of the Lord.
This message is especially powerful as we have just celebrated Christ’s Advent on earth during Christmas and the memory of this truth is still fresh in my mind. And with this new year, this “one more day” so to speak (in the words of the song from the musical/movie), we are still pursuing that time of peace when we will “put away the sword” and “walk behind the ploughshare”. And until that time is reached (nobody knows when, not even the Mayans!), we are called to live in such a way that the Truth of this story is known: “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16) As the fictional Jean lived: in a way that astounded his fellow men, bewildered his enemies, and impacted for the better those whom he loved. May this new year be an opportunity for us (me) to live in this way: that Christ may be shown and His kingdom, “the garden of the Lord”, draw ever nearer.
For further reading:
The Book of Isaiah
Huffington Post Article that I literally just found after writing the above long-winded post
Addendum: Just stumbled across this post today (Jan 3): http://thepubscout.com/2013/01/les-miserables-story-of-a-savior/
Note Bene: The included image is the painting “Fantine” by Margaret Bernadine Hall. The painting is stunning, in my opinion, and not just because I have the same name as the artist. I only know of it because it was included in the Wikipedia summary of “Les Miserables” and now that I’ve seen it/heard of her, I will be researching the artist’s work further. You can be sure I’ll post anything I come up with.