Have you seen the movie musical Les Mis? You should. And if you have a soul, you will weep several times.
This isn’t a movie review, so I won’t tire you with a plot line analysis. It’s also not a performance review—everyone was stunning. Why is Les Mis so powerful?
I think it touches the fall so profoundly. It paints a picture of death and destruction, desire and hell. Jean Valjean was imprisoned for a crime that he did commit, though for commendable reasons—his sister and her son were starving. He was caught and spent nineteen years in prison. The movie allows for the impossibility of this overwhelming burden to be fully realized—there is doom all around for those who have to pay the price.
Paris in the early 1800s is not a beautiful place. The poverty and stench are all around. Shalom was gone. Everyone is trying to get ahead in the filth and grime of life. The world is dark and broken, and it is every man for himself.
After Fantine’s husband runs off, she and her daughter Cossette must live with a slimy innkeeper and his wife. Fantine is a good woman in a bad circumstance, but others don’t want her around because they’re looking out for their own heads and beds. In quick order, she loses her job and then is forced to sell her hair and then her body in the pits of despair. Would you have done it differently? How far would you go to save your daughter?
[An aside: I was reading the Christmas story this week from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s readable translation. I was struck by how much emphasis is put on Mary’s virginity. It keeps coming up over and over again. We sing about it; it’s in our creeds and confessions. Yet somehow “the Virgin Mary” just glances off as a phrase that doesn’t seem to mean much. But it is a big deal. As The Message says in Luke 1:34, “I’ve never slept with a man.” Even that is a euphemism. Mary conceived a child without having had sex with anyone, and that remarkable and yet incredibly “mundane” fact is an essential tenant of Christianity if it is to be believed. This faith rests—at least in part—on the sexual facts of a Jewish girl and her fiancé.]
Yet Fantine dreams. There is something she longs for. It’s a time and a place where men are good and noble. Where she is loved and cared for. Where things are right and good. She longs for a new creation. She longs for a world that is not the one of death, pain, and shame in which she lives. Why? How does she even know about it? Why does this stir in her heart?
It’s a theme that runs throughout the story—in the midst of suffering and cruelty, love might triumph. Epinone gives up her desires so love can be found in someone else. Jean Valjean continues to do this through his own hurt and pain.
This is redemption and restoration. Love isn’t some schmaltzy idea. Though it’s sung of in the rain, it comes at a great cost and blood. For love to succeed, justice still has to be true and the price has to be paid. Jean gives himself up again and again. Epinone dies on the barricade. And Javier finally cannot bear it any longer—he cannot stand up under such a remarkable grace so he plunges to his own death.
Jean is a saint after all, because he gives his life away and thereby pictures the salvation Christ alone brings as the Savior—of creation, fall, and redemption. Jean saves so many with such a costly love. He seeks redemption from guilt and shame, and he finds it, setting to rights his whole life, giving it for the benefit of an adopted daughter. He saves Marius and gives him to Cossette. He saves Fantine. He even saves Javier, his tormentor.
It’s a sweeping tale that touches our hearts because it honestly portrays the sweep and scope of our longing for what was meant to be, the reality of where we find ourselves, and the joy in seeing things set right again through the deep, deep love of a Redeemer.