The epic film Les Miserables, based on the Victor Hugo novel and the international stage sensation, is a story of grace and redemption, of compassion and mercy.
The story begins with a simple but profound moment of forgiveness. Jean Valjean has been imprisoned for stealing a small loaf of bread to feed his sister’s daughter. Paroled after 20 years of hard labour and brutal treatment, Valjean is a broken, bitter man. He is desperate for work but no one will hire a parolee. Cold and hungry, he is taken in by a kindly bishop. During the night, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver plate and flees, but he is quickly taken into custody by the local police. The constables bring Valjean to the bishop’s residence and ask the bishop to identify the thief and his silver. Indeed it is his silver, the Monseigneur says – but the bishop explains that he gave Valjean the silver. He thanks the police for bringing Valjean to him because he was concerned that Valjean forget to take the valuable candlesticks, as well.
Valjean is stunned by the bishop’s extraordinary kindness and forgiveness. The bishop only asks Valjean to use the silver to re-create his life and return God’s goodness to others. “God has raised you out of darkness,” the bishop blesses Valjean. “I have bought your soul for God.”
It is a moment of transformation for Valjean
It is a moment of transformation for Valjean, who rediscovers within himself the love and mercy that led him to steal bread for his hungry niece. As he turns the cache of silver into a fortune that will benefit many, Valjean comes to realize that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
The kindness of the bishop is a moment of transfiguration for Valjean: As the three disciples behold the divinity that radiates from the vision of Jesus on the mountaintop, Valjean realizes the ember of God’s goodness that has continued to burn within him despite the brutality and cruelty of his two decades in prison.
That same touch of divinity exists within each one of us, as well: God is present within us, animating us to do good and holy things; guiding our steps as we try to walk justly and humbly in the ways of God; enlightening our vision with wisdom and selflessness to bring the justice and mercy of God into our world. The challenge of discipleship is to allow the love of God within us to “transfigure” despair into hope, sadness into joy, anguish into healing, estrangement into community.