On Les Mis and Finding Grace in Unexpected Places

One of London’s greatest features is its abundance of theatres boasting world-class plays and performances. Olivier, Gielgud, and Burton all performed here. When I was an undergraduate studying in London some year ago, I was utterly captivated by the stage. I had never seen anything like it. One musical that I saw then, and have seen many times since, is Les Misérables.  The story is, no doubt, well known to you:

A French youth named Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. He is incarcerated and, for nineteen years, toils under the watchful eye of his jailer, Javert. There is no mercy, no pity, no grace in Javert. He is a hard man who demands all who are under his authority strictly obey the law just as he demands it of himself. Finally, the day comes for Jean Valjean’s parole. He is free, but his status as a former convict follows him, preventing him from finding steady work or shelter. Bitter, angry, and hating the world that should condemn him to nineteen years of hard labor for stealing bread, Valjean becomes a thief. Finding shelter from an old priest, he steals the man’s silverware and leaves in the dead of night. When he is captured by police who rightly assume a poor beggar couldn’t possibly have obtained so much silver by legitimate means, they drag him back to the priest’s house, and that’s when a remarkable thing happens: the priest tells the police that he had given Valjean the silverware.

Priest to the police: “So monsieurs you may believe him, for this man has spoken true. I commend you for your duty, may God’s blessings go with you.”

Once the police have departed, the priest turns to Valjean and hands him two silver candlesticks that are worth more than all of the other silver combined. As Valjean grasps the candlesticks, the priest pulls him to himself and says:

“But remember this, my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood, God has raised you out of darkness, I have bought your soul for God.”

It is a powerful scene. It is a wonderful picture of grace that is articulated, sang, in terms that are explicitly Christian. Indeed, as the story plays out, it is clear that Valjean becomes a Christian. When he is tracked down by Javert decades after breaking his parole, Valjean has, by this time, become the embodiment of Grace. As for Javert, he represents law in all of its ruthlessness. The contrast between the two, deliberate on the part of author Victor Hugo, is striking. There is no mercy in the law or in Javert who enforces it. Valjean, having been transformed by grace in a graceless world, conquers his pursuer by showing him mercy and kindness.

Whenever I see this musical or one of its many movie manifestations, I am always intrigued by the fact that it has survived. I mean, Western culture is so determined to drive Christianity out of public life, and here is Les Misérables, with its unambiguously Christian messaging, for decades one of the most popular productions in London, New York, and many other places around the world. Not to be outdone, Hollywood has gotten in on the act, making multiple movies out of this classic novel. Good for them. May it continue. But do they really miss that what makes this story so powerful is the fact that it is infused with Christian goodness? It seems so.

The Law saves no one. We all stand condemned before the Law because none of us, not on our best day, can live up to its demands. Those who are saved, will be saved by the grace of God alone. “By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood, God has raised us out of darkness …”

Image Credit: Rick Payette

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