My first year in college, I got a ride home for Christmas with David, a friend and older student who was from the church my uncle pastors. It was a long drive and I talked him into listening to my original Broadway cast recording of Les Miserables on the way.
I was an awkward kid who’d spent the last four years being socialized by theater majors and Les Mis was as much a part of that scene as air. None of us had seen it yet – Broadway was farther from the independent Baptist university we attended than geography could account for. But we could picture every moment, knew every word and every note (and as I realized this past weekend sitting in the movie version, even every breath in that performance). I’d even voluntarily chosen to do my first major paper in high school on the novel, which meant reading it unabridged, and that is 1488 pages of true dedication. The novel remains my favorite, and if anything, it made me love and appreciate the musical even more for the faithfulness it held to the original.
I remember listening to those soaring voices winding through those mountain roads in the dark. And David started asking about the musical – what it was about and why I loved it so. He was a good friend, and he was concerned that I recognize the difference between true faith and an empty form, between doing good things and really being made new, between the gospel and a good story.
I don’t remember what I told him. I do remember feeling sad that he didn’t seem to “get” it, and frustrated that I couldn’t make it clear to him. I remembered that conversation as I sat it the dark theater this weekend for my second viewing of the movie. And I realized that four years of Bible college, four years of seminary, and more years of life have given me the words I didn’t have that night in the mountains. But they haven’t changed what I saw and heard and somehow recognized in Les Mis.
I recognized a story of widows and the orphans, of prisoners and the hungry, of those who the world has abandoned and dismissed. I recognized the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. I recognized the least of these.
I recognized the deceptive safety of being right. The merciless way this world traps and judges and condemns. And I recognized the heart of Christ in the midst of it all.
Hugo doesn’t spell out the gospel or the particular beliefs it encapsulates (and in the Christendom for which he was writing, I’m not sure he needed to), but he surely shows it to us. And surely Christendom needed that. Playing by the rules and getting it all right isn’t enough. Life must be submitted to grace, and grace will change us, truly change us. It will give us eyes to see and hearts to sacrifice for others. It will give us the keys to the Kingdom of God and the courage to welcome it in.
More than anything else, what I believe I recognized in Les Mis was the Kingdom of God. A kingdom that is not here, no not in this world where so much is not the way it’s supposed to be – and Les Mis is unstinting in showing how wrong it all is. A kingdom when this darkest of nights will end and the sun will rise. When we will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord, we will walk behind the ploughshare, we will put away the sword. A kingdom when the chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.
And that kingdom is very much of this world even as it beyond it. It is here in our very longing. In the ways we raise up the afflicted and those who have been bowed down. The ways we offer the grace of sanctuary to the hunted and haunted. Most profoundly, in the ways we love one another.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
The kingdom is come in us, and through us it infiltrates the world.
Or it should.
Too often I am weak. Too afraid to really love. Too afraid of losing or missing out.
I live too small a life.
Les Mis gave me one of my first glimpses of just how big the gospel is. How open-armed. How all-encompassing. And how it fills this world with hope even when nothing has changed. Nothing has changed, and yet there is comfort, there is blessing and the promise of satisfaction, there is mercy.
The presence of Jesus changes everything.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. …Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”