The Immensity of God’s Grace
2 hours we were offered, 2 hours of drama, music, heights and depths, 2 hours of reaching for the tissues, 2 hours of rollercoaster emotions.
And now 6 ½ hours, spread out over 6 weeks: less music, less emotion, but a richer palate of people and characters, of the writer as artist adding layer upon layer of meaning and depth to scene after scene and episode after episode.
Yes, it's Lent and I'm looking to Les Misérables, and the recent BBC adaptation.
That 6 ½ hours offers us a new and fuller take on the 150-year-old captivating story of grace. Grace, that little word, reminds us that we are self-insufficient. We need others. In the end, our salvation has to come from outside ourselves. Salvation is a gift, a gift of free grace.
This story of grace is one reason Les Misérables keeps being watched and loved, keeps being adapted for stage and screen – some 67 times in the past 115 years.
We love the romance of the story, the triumph of goodness over evil, the place of hope against despair, the role of grace against unyielding law. Indeed, the story is really about the theological contrast of sinners’ responses to grace, free grace, freely offered and nothing expected in return. Les Misérables is the story of two responses to mercy: Jean Valjean is broken and lives, and Inspector Javert is hardened and dies.
The scene that sets this story of life versus death, of freely offered grace versus unyielding adherence to law is early on. Valjean, our hero, is on the run. He has escaped the prison ships of Toulon. He finds shelter with the church, in the home of the Bishop of Digne. There he is fed, watered and offered a bed for the night, treated with dignity and worth.
But the old Valjean cannot shake off his past – he was imprisoned 5 years for stealing a loaf of bread, and another 14 years for multiple escape attempts. In the early hours of a still dark morn, prisoner 24601 steals the Bishop’s silver and slips out of the house, on the run again.
Again he is captured by the police, but rather than turn him in, the Bishop offers grace. He tells the police that the silver was a gift, and the convict had forgotten to take all the gift as he also gives Valjean a pair of silver candlesticks.
The Bishop tells Valjean to use the gifts "to become an honest man" before God. Ashamed and humbled by the Bishop's grace, Valjean resolves to redeem his sins, and take this chance to start a new life free from the stigma of his criminal past.
It is here, in this profound act of grace freely offered and greatly enhanced, that our hero is at the fork in the road of his life. He can walk back to his old ways of crime and an eventual return to the prison ships of Toulon or to start a new life in which the grace he has received becomes the seedbed of the grace he offers to others.
Lent offers us our fork in the road - are we ready to reach out for God's grace and renewal of our life? Or are we too enslaved to ungodly ways?