Last weekend, Casey and I coerced my brother and sister-in-law to do a babysitting swap with us so we could finally see Les Misérables. I’d been waiting and waiting for it to be released, and then it seemed like we just could not work out a babysitter, so I had to wait even longer.
I was first exposed to Les Misérables, which is French for The Miserable, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims, when I was in high school. I saw the musical when it came to Little Rock, and then the Liam Neeson movie version came out about the same time. I was then inspired to read the novel by Victor Hugo. It’s a whopping 1,400 pages, and it took me months to read because I kept losing interest. Let’s just say it’s not nearly as succinct as the play.
I loved Les Mis when I was young because it was dramatic and passionate. The music is beautiful, and the story is captivating, but it was just that to me, a story. I also loved Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella movie which came out the same year, so you can tell my taste was far from refined. Since then, I haven’t thought about Les Mis much.
So I entered the theater last weekend fifteen years older and wiser, and much more knowledgeable about life and pain than I was as a sheltered child. What I saw on the screen floored me; this was no longer an exciting tale with a dramatic ending, this was real and true. These were no longer fictionalized characters to me, they were real people. I’ve met them, I’ve watched them, . . . I am them.
I met Fantine in Ethiopia, a broken and neglected girl whose life was ruined by the selfishness of others. I’ve seen hundreds of Cosettes, children mistreated and abused, who only want to hear the words, “Cosette, I love you very much.” The world is filled with Eponines, people born into such topsy-turvy situations that they can barely discern which way is up; they long to do and be good, but they hardly know how. And the poor, the prostitutes, the hungry, the dirty, the cold, the sick; they are real too. They live their short lives out on the streets, aching and lonely; “The Miserable” really is the best name for them. Theirs is a misery I can hardly fathom.
And while I recognized each character as someone I’ve known or seen, I also found myself identifying with each of them. I am Jean Valjean, whose life was redeemed when I least deserved it. I am Cosette, blissfully ignorant of all that has been done on my behalf. I have been and still struggle with being Javert, hung up on rules and regulations, unwilling to bestow even an ounce of grace on others even though I have been forgiven of so much. I am Marius, anxious for change and revolution, but often rushing the process and failing in my ideals. I am the Thenadiers, selfishly manipulating every situation for my own benefit. I am the rich who look the other way when surrounded by desperation and poverty; it would cost me too much to acknowledge what changes should be made. And I am the poor, desperate and needy, living one day at a time and hoping for a time when life will be better. I think we can all say at one time or another, “I am ‘The Miserable.’”
It’s always striking to me when people who do not know Christ are still able to stumble upon and profess an incredible truth. Victor Hugo was hardly a Christian, though he did seem to believe in God, but his work about suffering and grace rings with so much truth that I found myself casting my eyes at the audience as we watched the film. Did they recognize the truth, did they know this was more than a beautiful story?
One of the last lines in the musical is “To love another person is to see the face of God.” As a teenager, I would have swooned at this and pinned it up on my wall, to remind myself of the thrilling emotions of being “in love” (aka having a pretty consuming crush).
But as an adult, I think I have a better understanding of this truth. True love isn’t a butterfly feeling, but an action with skin and bones. And it’s not just something we do for people we are attracted to or who are lovable to us, it’s something we extend to all who are around us. It means having eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us, a heart that feels compassion for them, and hands that are willing to give them the grace that they need.
This is the kind of love that Jesus modeled for us and commands of us. And He promised that when we love in this way, we are actually loving Him. So “To love another person is to see the face of God,” isn’t just a sappy line in a beautiful story, it’s a God-given truth.
When the movie ended, and Jean Valjean joins his friends in death, I was moved from just the silent tears that had been trickling down my face through the whole movie to an all-out weep. Casey says I may have attracted a few concerned glances from others. I couldn’t help it. The beautiful picture and reminder that one day this redemptive process will be complete, that all things will be made right, was a salve to my weary soul. It’s a truth I need to see and remember daily.
Yes, there are graces that trickle on us daily, if we have the eyes to see, but there is coming a downpour of grace and mercy that will wipe all the misery from the earth. We won’t be called “The Miserable” then, we’ll be called “The Children of the Living God.” Yes, come, Lord Jesus.
“They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshed, the will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!”