“Jean Valjean wept long. He sobbed with more weakness than a woman, more terror than a child. While he wept the light grew brighter in his brain, an extraordinary light, at once ravishing and terrible. His past life, his first fault, his long expiation, his external brutalisation, his internal hardening, his liberation, accompanied by so many plans of vengeance, what had happened at the Bishop’s, the last thing he had done, the robbery of the boy, a crime the more cowardly and monstrous because it took place after the Bishop’s forgiveness – all this recurred to him, but in a light which he had never before seen. He looked at his life, and it appeared to him horrible; at his soul, and it appeared to him frightful. Still a soft light was shed over both, and he fancied that he was looking upon Satan by the light of Paradise.How long did he weep thus? What did he do afterwards? Whither did he go? No one ever knew. It was started, however, that on this very night the mail-carrier from Grenoble, who arrived at D—at about 3 a.m., while passing through the street where the Bishop’s Palace stood, saw a man kneeling on the pavement in the attitude of prayer in front of Monseigneur Welcome’s door.” (Victor Hugo – Les Miserables)
For those of you who haven’t read Les Miserables (or seen any of the adaptions), Jean Valjean is on parole having served 20 years’ hard labour; 5 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sick nephew and the rest added for his escape attempts. Living as a vagabond, he is offered hospitality one night by a bishop and repays the kindness by making off with the silver. Valjean is subsequently caught and brought back to the bishop, who both corroborates Valjean’s story that the silver was given to him and gives him two candlesticks, saying he’d forgotten those. In return, the bishop asks Valjean to put the sliver to good use. You’ll see from the quotation above (and this bit’s omitted from the musical but was included in last years’ BBC adaptation) that Valjean goes on to steal from a young boy. It’s at this point that he has his ‘conversion’ experience and goes on to change not only his own life for the better but the lives of others too.
I have chosen the novel Les Miserables for my reflection because, for me, its whole message is that of the on-going process of salvation. I don’t see salvation as a one-off event. We’re ultimately saved by Christ but, as Christians, we’re called to participate in God’s saving work in the world through works of justice and mercy:
“I will also make you a light…that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Some Christians ask, “Have you been saved?” My answer, “Yes thanks, just over two thousand years ago!” We’ve all been saved, but not everyone chooses to accept the gift. In Les Miserables, Valjean, who, for all his good works, is still a criminal in the eyes of the law for breaking his parole, is being hunted by Inspector Javert. In an intense confrontation, Valjean finds himself in a position where he could kill Javert. In the worldly sense, Valjean would be free but he lets Javert go. Javert, unable to accept this gift of freedom from someone whom he considers to be beyond contempt, subsequently commits suicide. Sadly, there are those who reject faith for many reasons. Sadder still, there are even more who do not know that the gift of salvation is theirs and the peace and liberty it can bring to their lives. How do we who know the gift share it with those who don’t?