My tickets to the new Les Miserables (Les Miz) movie have been purchased for a couple of weeks. I am taking the family on Christmas day. I have seen the musical numerous times and cannot wait to see the cinematic adaptation. While not traditional “holly jolly” fare for Christmas, Les Miserables may be a suitable Christmas Day story.
While not a “religious” play, Les Miz has numerous spiritual themes. Most of the characters are dealing with their ideas of God, sin, punishment, grace, or providence. Jean Valjean has broken the law and paid with consequences and makes a spiritual journey from bitterness to gratitude and love. His path involves a spiritual encounter of grace mediated by the priest that takes him in and passes through his own struggles with personal responsibility and self-sacrifice. The grace of the priest who gives Valjean his silver is contrasted by the police detective, Javert. Javert’s life is built on a religious certitude in which he works to ensure that every crime is punished and every law is followed. He is driven by his desire to live a morally upright life and he, therefore, has little patience or grace for those that do not follow those rules (even when for a supposed “greater good”).
The women of the play seem to have less a sense of control of their own destinies. Fantine and Eponine both deal with harsh realities of life and struggle with disappointments and tragedy. Fantine’s moving song, “I Dreamed a Dream” is a gut-wrenching examination of how life can be so different from the dreams and expectations that we have when we are young. Eponine’s “On My Own” is more melodramatic, but includes her feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and despair.
Each of the above characters spends some time in reflection on life’s meaning and purpose, while the Thenardiers, in their comedic relief, provide an example of the unexamined life. Thenardier does provide a bit of reflection on the dark side of humanity, but he seems to accept his own evaluation and he bases his life on lack of trust and his own selfish ambitions. Both Thenardier and Madame Thenardier readily use others for their own gain and represent the more base aspects of human nature.
All of these reflections on the nature of God and humanity are beautiful representations of our own struggles as we deal with the realities of our own world. We are confronted with the evil of school shootings, a growing sense of financial insecurity, a government in stalemate, wars around the world, and struggles in our daily lives. It can be easy for us to long for a time when things will be set right and it can be tempting for us to fall into despair and feel alone and forsaken. This is the world and reality into which God inserted himself and took on our frail form; not the form of a soldier or a king, but the form of an infant. In the Baptist tradition, we often want to move too quickly from this Advent story to the story of “Good Friday” and Easter, but each of those holidays has its own reality. The time of Advent is the time to reflect on the reality that God has come to us in our form. God knows our struggles and knows our fears. God has come that we may know that we are not alone and that we may know God’s love that casts out our fears.
The last sung line of the musical, “Les Miserables”, is “To love another person is to see the face of God”. Throughout the musical, as throughout our lives, the terrible is moderated by the loving and caring presence of another. While we continue to hope for the day when God will come to us again and set everything as it should be, for now, the presence of God is not experienced as the absence of strife, but as “God with us” (Immanuel) as mediated through the love of another. As we seek to live out the kingdom of God in our own lives, to embody the love of God, we mediate God’s presence for others and find peace within our own existence. God broke into our world in a miraculous way and took our form and those of us who follow His way should seek to embody God’s form for those in our lives. The hope of God in the midst of uncertainty, fear, and tragedy is the story of Christmas and the baby Jesus lying in a manger. Let us rejoice with the angels in singing “Gloryto God in the highest and on earth peace to all.