The Holy Experience of Watching Les Miserables

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Last week we watched the Tom Hooper production of Les Misérables. We have all seen it live (in London, no less!) but I believe that the next best thing to a live performance is this movie.

I cannot see Les Misérables without crying. The story,full of redemption and grace, is timeless.

For those who don’t know the story, Les Misérables takes place in 19th century France. While it is commonly thought to be about the French Revolution, it is actually a different insurrection in 1832 that was quickly and violently stopped.

A prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean, better known by his number 24601, is granted parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was initially given 5 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child but because of many attempts to escape ended up being there for 19. Seen as a pariah because of his prison past, he struggles to find work or food.  He is ultimately taken in by a man of the cloth, the Bishop of Digne, and given food and lodging. He returns this kindness by stealing the silverware in the middle of the night, is caught by police and taken to be accused by the clergy. Instead of accusations, he is vindicated as  the Bishop claims they were given to Valjean as a gift and wonders aloud to Jean Valjean’s captors why he left the silver candlesticks in ‘his haste’ .  This act of grace is given with a challenge by the clergyman to ‘Become an honest man.’ He journeys through his life doing just that, though continuously haunted by his past in the form of a police inspector named Javert.

The contrast between Javert and Jean Valjean is profound as one is consumed with the need for justice and retribution and the other attempts to live out his life in grace, but secrecy. Like all good stories there is the protagonist, a conflict, and a critical climax that I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the show.

Les Misérables is great theology wrapped up in an excellent story and beautiful music. Watching either the movie or the live production is nothing if not a holy experience. In Les Misérables, love and kindness are woven together and so grace and mercy triumph.

The Bishop plays a small role in this musical, but it is the Bishop that I have been thinking about since last week. From the beginning, the Bishop takes a risk on this prisoner, Jean Valjean. He doesn’t know why he’s been in prison. Just that he is a man, troubled and in need of food and shelter. In the movie rendition, two older women who obviously care for the Bishop’s residence, look aghast as the Bishop extends hospitality and kindness to this dangerous stranger.

In the theologically rich book of Romans, there is an ending of a verse that is never far from my mind. It’s the end of verse 4 in the 2nd chapter and it reads like this: “not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”* 

We can’t say no to something, unless there is something better to say yes to. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean a picture of something better, of a life lived well, of grace, and of God’s kindess. Jean Valjean cannot say no to this offering and his entire life is changed.

God is infinitely creative in his design of holy moments and experiences; but there are times when I need my vision checked and restored in order to see and participate. Last week, sitting on a couch and watching Les Misérables was one of those holy moments, and I am grateful.

***

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!
Forgive me all my trespasses
and take me to your glory
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!”

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare;
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

*The end of the verse is part of a longer conversation as the whole passage is about passing judgment on others, but for the purposes of my reflections I have chosen to focus just on this verse ending.

Note: For an interesting and informative read take a look at the article “Enjoy Les Miserables. But please get the history straight!”

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Third Culture Kid - Grew up in Pakistan, lived and worked in Pakistan and Egypt as an adult. Moved to the United States and learning to live away from curry, Urdu, Arabic and the Pyramids.

7 thoughts on “The Holy Experience of Watching Les Miserables

  1. Les Mis has an incredible spirituality. A story of compassion, forgiveness, hope, love, sacrifice, humanity, and redemption. Extremely powerful, epic, inspirational, emotionally engaging, but heartbreaking musical.

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  2. I love, love, love Les Miserables. I’ve seen it live… seen the movies… read the book in English. My next goal is to read it in French.

    I think it is one of the BEST works ever to capture the necessary tension between grace and justice – and that one, without the other – is incomplete.

    I cry every time…

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  3. I haven’t seen that version, but I’ve watched the older Liam Neeson version, and I am always taken by the grace the bishop offers Valjean, and by the change it inspires in him. Much more important than the love story later on.

    But now, I may need to spend some time with this newest version. . . .

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  4. I have never been able to make myself read the book, as it is so long; I don’t want to immerse myself in “the miserable ones” for that length of time, I know it would harrow my emotions. But I did finally watch the movie and I also was moved by the bishop and his desire to bring out good in Valjean. What a world we would have if we all acted thusly…

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    1. I had only ever read an abridged children’s edition of Les Miserables. A couple of years ago my husband and I visited the mother of a friend in a nursing home in Florida. We had not met her before. In her 90s with a debilitating disease she is physically very limited, but what an amazing person. Her space in this double room was filled with books, family pictures, her computer, Bibles in Spanish and English. I asked her what she was currently reading. She pointed to the unabridged Les Miserables, and said, “I’ve just finished this.” So I took the challenge, thinking that it she could do it, I ought to be able to. I did get the Kindle edition though. Now I really want to see the movie. The Bishop is a really great character, a beautiful picture of God in His amazing grace and mercy. Thanks, Marilyn.

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  5. I too find the grace and redemption themes profoundly moving, but from the movie point of view I prefer the “unmusical” version with Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean.

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