Grace & the Law in ‘Les Misérables’
I need to confess something: I listen to the soundtrack of Les Misérables every time I go running because it’s the only music that can keep me running for 10km. And I’ve watched the musical seven times when I was studying in London because (1) the student prices for musicals are cheeaap! (2) it’s the first musical that comes to mind to bring friends to watch whenever they visited me in London (3) I really love the musical!
I feel that the genius of Victor Hugo is that he manages to pack so many of life’s themes into his novel, yet among all the themes featured in the novel – justice, love, sacrifice, human dignity, mercy – the one that grips my heart every time is that of grace and the law. Grace first touched Valjean when the bishop that he stole silver from actually chose not to persecute him after he has been caught. Instead, the bishop willingly gives Valjean the silver he can use it to start a new life. Here are the beautiful words of grace mouthed by the bishop:
“And remember this, my brother,
See in this some high 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.”
But Valjean, so used to being under the law, finds it hard to understand this new and alien notion of grace is. Am I truly forgiven? How can it be that instead of being given what I deserve, I actually receive what I don’t deserve? Here is Valjean’s grace awakening:
“My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?”
And another way Valjean does go. From the grace he received from the bishop, Valjean uses his life to extend that grace to help Fantine, to love Cosette, and to rescue Marius.
Yet, there is another story that instructs me as well. It is the story of another in the story who was touched by grace, but received it not. It is the story of Javert, the unrelenting inspector who stands unwaveringly by the law. When he is exposed as a spy in the revolution, Valjean chooses to set him free instead of killing him. And with that act of grace, Javert’s world that is built on cold justice and harsh legalism, is suddenly turned topsy-turvy. How can this be? But Javert cannot understand nor accept this grace freely given to him, choosing instead to end his life. Here are his sad words:
“And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!”
When the God of the universe took on flesh to become a man to die for us on a cross, he gave us grace that we can never imagine nor comprehend nor repay. How then do we respond to this unfathomable act of grace? Do we choose to embrace it and extend it to others like Valjean did? Or do we choose to reject it and run from it like Javert?