Ash Wednesday, Les Misérables, and a Word About Grace
Written by Kacie Drake | ChattHOP Staff
I grew up with a fairly nebulous understanding of Lent. If asked for specifics, I could really only tell you that it lasted forty days and that people refrained from eating desserts. If pressed for more specifics, I could tell you that on Tuesday, people stuff their faces and party, and the day after, people get sobered up and sorry. And I could also tell you Lent was some type of on-ramp to Easter, but overall, mostly functions like a restart button for people’s New Year’s resolutions.
You’re probably cringing. That’s okay. Lent is obviously so much more, one of many reasons being that it’s a church tradition that has been happening for twenty-one centuries. Important.
But today, while I was kneeling between two hard pews after the oily ash was pressed into my forehead, I was thinking of Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean, of course, is the protagonist of Les Mis, a man who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Hugo describes those years of injustice with this: “from year to year this soul had progressively withered, slowly but inevitably. A dry eye goes with a dead soul. When he left prison, he had not shed a tear for nineteen years.”
This pitiable and embittered man is finally pronounced “free” from prison, a great irony, to which Hugo comments, “Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave prison behind but not his sentence.” So Jean Valjean left prison with no home and no hope, and was greeted only with harshness and hostility until somebody pointed at one open door.
That door, as you may be familiar, lead to the home of Monsiegneur Bienvenu, or, as most know him, the bishop. The bishop was a man of genuine kindness, a man that truly loves God and others, willfully living in utmost poverty so he could give all he has to the poor, save for a small collection of silver dishware and candlesticks to put on the table when guests come, “elevating poverty to dignity.” He was a man whose life was centered around bestowing dignity. And that fateful night, when Jean Valjean walked through the door, the bishop set the table with full silver ensemble, sat Jean Valjean at his right side, consistently calling him “monsieur.” Every time he was called "monsieur," Jean Valjean’s face lit up. The bishop told him, “This is the home of no man, except the one who needs a refuge… whatever is here is yours.”
Jean Valjean slept hard that night, but only for a few hours. His body rejected the comfort of the bed and the peace of the home. Even thought he was in one of the poorest houses in town, the comfort of a bed was a shock to his being.
In the middle of the night, Jean Valjean woke up abruptly, in turmoil. He was haunted by kindness.
And then, you know how the story goes; Jean Valjean steals the bishop's only valuable possession: his silver, and takes off in the middle of the night. The next time we see Jean Valjean, he is being dragged by gendarmes back to the door of the bishop’s house, having been found with the bag of silver. With one word from the bishop, he would go back to prison.
But, instead of being met with (deserved) accusation, Monseigneur Bienvenu said, “Ah, there you are! I’m glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks, too… Why didn’t you take them along with your cutlery?”
“Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the bishop with an expression no human tongue could describe.”
Can you even imagine that expression? I think we've all had a similar expression at some point, surprised and overwhelmed by a gesture of love. Grace is often too much for us to handle. How can you describe the expression of a person’s face who, for perhaps the first time in their life, has received grace? Has been met with kindness rather than ridicule?
I was reminded of this today as my knees pressed into the hard floor:
Grace didn’t change Jean Valjean’s actions right away.
Enter Petit Gervais. You may not be familiar with Petit Gervais. He is a very minor character, only found in the unabridged edition of Les Mis; he's a cheerful ten-year-old chimneysweep that Jean Valjean encounters shortly after he is released by the gendarmes, the bishop's silver now his, a downpayment towards his new, free life. Along the path to his new life, Petit Gervais comes singing down the road, tossing some coins in the air, probably his entire fortune. He tosses the coins once more and a forty-sous piece gets away from him and rolls near Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean places his foot on the forty-sous piece. There is a terrible exchange between Jean Valjean and the boy, who pleads for Jean Valjean to please move his foot. But Jean Valjean will not budge. He only says to the boy, “Go away.” The child cries and cries, begging Jean Valjean to please give him his money. This troubles him, but still he does not budge.
For hours more he stood there, until finally, realizing the sun has set, he steps forward and sees the forty-sous piece. “It was like an electric shock. ‘What is that?’ he said between his teeth.”
And that is when grace did its great work.
Overwhelmed with guilt, Jean Valjean ran after Petit Gervais, into the nearest town, searching frantically for the boy to return his coin to him. But Petit Gervais was nowhere to be found. After hours of searching, Jean Valjean fell down, hands in his hair and face on his knees, and cried out, “I’m such a miserable man!”
“Then his heart swelled, and he burst into tears. It was the first time he had wept in nineteen years.”
Regardless of your view or opinion of Ash Wednesday or Lent, this is what is being said today across the globe: “From dust you came, and to dust you will return. Repent and believe.”
Grace makes the first move. Repentance follows. Grace cannot guarantee repentance; it can only give freely. Sometimes, the only way we can open that gift is to open our eyes to our own sin, to actually believe we have need.
And for each of us, who are offered unfathomable kindness, it is only when we see ourselves as we actually are that we can let that grace transform us.