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A Light Has Dawned: Inspiration from Les Miserables

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

How many of you have ever seen the musical or watched the movie “Les Miserables?” I’d highly recommend seeing the musical, reading the book, and/or seeing the 1998 movie starring Liam Neeson. When I read this book 25 years ago, it became one of my all-time favorites! Then I saw the musical on Broadway and London, and haven’t stopped listening to the music over all these years. This powerful story has inspired countless people, not only because it has a moving plot and incredible music, but because in so many ways it’s a summary of the Gospel. Victor Hugo, the author of the original book, captured the essence of Christianity in its most practical sense by telling the story of a pathetic, broken man, rejected and despised by society, yet redeemed by God’s love and grace in the most unexpected way. And through this redemption, love transforms this miserable person into a Christ-like character. In fact, this story summarizes the lives of some of our most beloved saints – wretched, dejected sinners transformed into icons of Christ through the divine love and grace they encounter from others.

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the Evangelist Matthew describe the beginning of Jesus’ ministry by saying, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light… Light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16) These words perfectly describe what happened to Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Les Miserables – the divine light of love and grace dawned in his soul and transformed and transfigured his life!

The story begins with Jean Valjean being released from prison after 19 years! Nineteen years of torture, suffering, captivity and shame. What was Jean Valjean’s crime? Stealing a loaf of bread to help feed a starving nephew. Yet in 19th century France, where the masses lived in utter poverty, such a crime could garner a prison sentence of five years.  Since Valjean tried to escape his prison camp, a five year sentence turns into 19 years of misery. And after 19 years in prison, with his humanity stripped from him, the police officer Javert informs him that his release does not mean that he is truly free. “A man like you can never change!” the self-righteous Javert reprimands him. “Once a criminal, always a criminal.” And to confirm that society will never forget his status as a thief, Valjean receives his ex-convict papers, which he must show wherever he goes. He is a marked man, and society won’t ever forget, or ever forgive him.

As Valjean wonders around looking for food, looking for shelter, feeling the bitter hatred and absolute rejection of society, he finally finds shelter in the home of a kind bishop, who offers him a hot meal and a warm bed. Valjean repays the hospitality of the bishop, however, by waking up in the middle of the night and stealing the silver utensils with which he ate the night before. Yet when the police arrest Valjean the next day, and bring him back to the bishop to be condemned, the saintly bishop chooses to defend the thief, saying that he had not only given the ex-convict the stolen silver, but Valjean forgot to take the most precious of his gifts, two silver candlesticks!

The police are not as stunned as the thief himself. And after the police depart, the bishop says to Valjean, “My brother, see in this a higher plan. Use this precious silver to become an honest man. Out of darkness God has raised you, and I have bought your soul for God!”

That unexpected act of unconditional love and grace, treating a miserable criminal like a precious child of God, looking beyond any evil act and seeing the goodness of his soul became the impetus for radical change in Valjean. He becomes a new creation. Divine light has dawned within the soul of Valjean, and as a new man, he can never forget the mercy shown to him. His life is dedicated to imitating the unconditional compassion, love and grace he received with everyone he meets.

Thus, ten years later, when Valjean surprisingly becomes a successful industrialist and the mayor of a small French town, his newfound status doesn’t make him forget the poor and needy. A peasant townsman is trapped under a wagon, and the mayor jumps down into the mud to lift up the wagon and safe the man’s life. A desperate woman, thrown into prostitution because of her poverty, finds support and understanding from Valjean, and her orphaned child comes under his protection and love. An innocent man is mistaken as the former thief Valjean, and is about to be sentenced back to the prison camps, yet the mayor Valjean reveals his true identity in order to save the innocent man, and thus, risks his own re-imprisonment. “If I speak I am condemned,” Valjean contemplates, “if I stay silent I am damned!” Valjean places himself in the position of every suffering person, because he knows the he was saved by mercy, compassion and unconditional love, and is called to imitate those same virtues with everyone he encounters!

Yet while Valjean is transfigured from criminal into saint, Inspector Javert continues to hunt for him, all for the sake of justice and law and order. Javert represents the self-righteous religious man who sees himself as God’s protector, with everything painted as black and white. He can’t accept the grey in life, and thus maintains the spirit that once a criminal, always a criminal; once a thief, always a thief. A man who has done an evil deed can never change!

By the end of the story, Valjean has one final chance to end the relentless pursuit of Javert, yet of course instead of killing him, he shows the mercy and grace that has exemplified his redeemed life, and frees his antagonist. Valjean has become the epitome of Christ, having allowed the divine light of God to not only dawn in his soul, but to shine brightly upon everyone he meets.

Although an inspiring novel, some may dismiss the character of Jean Valjean as simply that, a make-believe character in a classic novel. Yet we know throughout history of the many saints – real people - some canonized and countless others not canonized, who have truly become a new creation through the love and grace of God, and who have allowed Christ Himself to be formed within them. Such people have left the darkness of the world and not only seen the true light, but have allowed that light to engulf them and shine forth from them. They have become in the truest sense Christians, not only followers of Jesus Christ, but icons of our Lord reflecting His spirit of love, compassion, kindness, goodness and grace upon everyone they encounter in life. We are not the judge of others, we are simply the instruments through which we can share God’s light, and hopefully through that light, they will encounter the transforming change of the Gospel.

I hope everyone will rent this movie or musical, Les Miserables, and allow the life of Jean Valjean to inspire you to deeds of holiness!