For me, the story of Les Misérables (which is a French word that comes from the Latin “miserabilis”–worthy of mercy), is about the life-changing power of Divine Mercy. This gift of Divine Mercy is beautifully depicted in the sequence in which the Bishop of Digne offers mercy to Jean Valjean after the latter has stolen silver from the bishop.
Having been caught in his theft by two constables, Valjean tells them that the stolen silver was really a gift from the Bishop. Finding this story rightly far-fetched, the police drag Valjean back to the Bishop, where they tell him of the crime, as well as Valjean’s lie. To the shock of everyone (most especially Valjean) the Bishop confirms his story—and more, he gives Valjean two silver candlesticks, as well! After the guards leave, the Bishop turns to Valjean, dumbfounded by this excessive kindness, and essentially gives him sacramental absolution:
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.
Neither Victor Hugo, the author of the novel, nor the writers of the musical’s lyrics, are Catholic, so we can hardly expect the words of Absolution spoken by the priest in Confession to be accurately represented here—nevertheless we do see the action take place. Forgiveness of sins is pronounced, and penance is given (Valjean is told to use the gift of the silver to become an honest man). This sacramental gift of grace brings about an incredible change in Valjean. No longer is he a slave to his hatred and bitterness, nor is he a slave to the identity foisted upon him by the merciless government (represented by the giving of a number, 24601). He is now truly free, and a new man, and the rest of the story is about how he lives in that new life of grace! Valjean faces every subsequent moral dilemma with a sureness of what is right, and the manful resolve to do it, no matter what the cost. This self-sacrifice would not have been possible to Prisoner 24601, but because of the life-changing power of grace, it is possible to Jean Valjean!
While many have latched onto the line that to love another person is to see the face of God, the ability to live such a life is only the result of God’s grace, made available in the Sacraments. That love only comes out of us after it has been given to us, just as it was shown to Valjean and bestowed upon him by the Bishop through the grace of Absolution. As we begin this new year, let us go ourselves to that source of Grace, and cast off our own prison numbers in Confession, and become the lover that God calls us to be.
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