Les miserables is a brilliant story to reflect upon at the start of Lent. In it there is a policeman, Javert, who sees his divine vocation to bring order by strict adherence to the law, whatever the tragic consequences his pursuit of this aim may provoke. There is also an ex convict, Jean Valjean, who knows all too well such tragedy, as his incarceration came about because he stole bread for his starving nephew. It is through the intervention of a bishop who lies on Jean Valjean’s behalf, that he is given the chance to live a life of mercy and compassion on his release from prison.
Clearly Victor Hugo wanted us to forgo the simplistic assumptions that so many moralistic arguments would have us hold fast too – remember that the turning point towards the light for Valjean depended upon the deceit of a bishop. Mercy and compassion in Les Miserables shine through the squalor and ruthlessness of the times, breaking through even as hearts are broken, especially where hearts are broken.
I am comforted by this vision, and it helps me approach lent with a healthy attitude. Our God is not a legalistic deity, weighing our sins from a distance and demanding recompense whatever the consequence.
Rather our God is one of total love, and face to face with such love the only response really is to be honest and real, to stop hiding because the light of such love is so bright, there really is no where to hide. Yes, this is a vulnerable moment, to be beheld in all our brokenness, fraility and failings, but this, I believe is the true moment of penitence, to simply be, and not pretend or defend in the face of love.
Such love will hold us and heal us no matter what has befallen us, and no matter what we have done, if only we can maintain our gaze and stay in its embrace.