It’s Friday night in Melbourne. To avoid overcrowded cinemas and enjoy the screening on a more personal level, I’ve waited until week four to see the box office hit Les Misérables. It occurs to me, as I take my seat, there’s a certain irony at play. I am about to watch a story written in my mother tongue, birthed in the mind of one of my favourite French authors Victor Hugo. Yet, the movie is sung in English, features an Australian actor, and to my left and right are Australian friends.
While I wait, I try to think back to the first time I encountered the story of Les Misérables. Was it really some fifteen years ago? I think of the distance that separates me from that younger me. What has happened in those years? My life has unfolded in unexpected ways… but, the room grows dark, the film starts to roll and takes us to France in the mid 1800s. The country is then torn apart by a revolution against the rising and oppressing monarchy. In this context, we meet Jean Valjean. Sentenced to prison for having stolen a loaf of bread and subsequently trying to escape, he is released on parole after 19 years during which bitterness and resentment have been his daily bread. Discovering the grace of God at the hands of a loving and faithful bishop, his life is transformed and he breaks his parole to begin a new life. Six years later, he is known as Monsieur Madeleine, wealthy owner of a textile factory and mayor of the town.
Here we encounter Fantine, a young and beautiful worker at his factory. Her life has gone from one misfortune to the next: abandoned by the man she loved, mother to a child she cannot care for, she is unjustly fired from the factory, and has no choice but to sell her body for the money needed to satisfy her child’s greedy guardians. In a moment of deep despair, she sings a gut-wrenching poem that sums up the tragedy of her life… and my attention is arrested at her words:
“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
Although the story goes on, I have not continued with it. The words linger. They still echo in my mind. I reflect on the last twenty years of my life. Many of the dreams I had then have gone to waste. Like generations before me and others to come, I have to grapple with the disappointing reality that something “went wrong”, that sin tarnished our world not only on a general scale but very tangibly on a personal level. At times, this indent causes hope to fail me, despair to embrace me. Fantine’s cry makes me wonder, are these the final words? Is there hope for such a seemingly hopeless life as hers? Where is her redemption from utter despair, from certain death? And maybe, where is mine?
My thoughts are interrupted by the story. It has picked up again. I see a hand of grace reaching out to Fantine, the hand of Jean Valjean. He sees her misery and he meets her in the depth of her emptiness with a compassionate heart, one that knows the sufferings and the trials of life as well as the love of God. Not only does he intercede for her freedom and rescue her from a destitute life, but he also promises to care for her child Cosette so that she can be at peace.
This picture pulls me out of a state of fatalism and awakens me once again to the truth of grace. Fantine, the picture of emptiness, is met by Jean Valjean, the picture of fullness of grace. While he holds a prestigious and powerful position as mayor of the city, Valjean is moved by the broken-hearted, hopes to heal them and restore them. And, in the moment when he stoops down to look into Fantine’s desperate eyes, I see the image of my encounter with Jesus Christ, one that I must remember vividly and meditate on every day of my life. An image that keeps me hopeful.
John tells us in the opening of his gospel that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth […]. For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:14,16) Jesus Christ descended to rescue us from destitution and to give us new life and new hope.
Knowing that we are loved by God enables us to reverse the path of giving up hope and letting circumstances decide what our today and tomorrow will feel and look like. So that, when we walk the more sombre times of our lives, in the same stride, we may pick up the blessings of God, his grace through Jesus Christ. The arrangement of sorrow and grace does look a bit strange, a bit off; I think the word is imperfect. Yet, Henri Nouwen challenges us in that, “every time that we are able to enjoy the present and still know that tomorrow will hold at least some difficult moments, some uncertainties, some reminders of our mortality, we can learn to stretch out our arms to the Other we trust, to the great Another.”
With every sunrise, may our emptiness be met with his fullness, his overflowing grace and generous love. And may we live trusting in the promise that “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” – Victor Hugo
(This post was first published on the City on a Hill website in 2012. The rights of this piece have since been granted to me for personal use.)