My favorite musical is Les Miserables. I had the chance to see it first on a trip to London when I was in the seminary. The beauty of the music and the power of the story drove me to take a look at the book by Victor Hugo, after which it was modeled. The story, as it is presented on-stage, tells an epic tale of a man imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing bread. At the start of the show, "Prisoner 24601" is paroled, and the attitude of his jailers is a common one: he will never make good; he will mess up again.
The man leaves his prison and soon encounters a kindly bishop who takes him in for the night. Now, in the show, this bishop plays a rather small role, but it is still significant. In fact, in Hugo's masterpiece, which is divided into five grand sections, 48 "books," the first book is dedicated to the character of this Bishop of Digne, known affectionately as "Monseigneur Bienvenu." When the prisoner encounters such kindness and welcome, he is taken aback. All he ever knew those nineteen years was harshness and punishment. However, in the middle of the night, he gives in to his criminal expectations and steals some silver from the bishop's house and runs off.
He is soon caught, however, and the constables bring him back to the bishop's house. They interrogate him in from of Monseigneur Bienvenu, indicating that he had said that the bishop gave him the silver. Rather than accuse him, the bishop simply agrees, "That is right." Then he continues musically:
But, my friend, you left so early,
something surely slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these also.
Would you leave the best behind?
The bishop gives the man two silver candlesticks and dismisses the constables. When they are gone, he turns to the thief again:
But remember this, my brother:
see in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
to become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs,
by the Passion and the Blood,
God has raised you out of darkness:
I have bought your soul for God.
The man is left now, with his forgiveness, and a sense of what just happened. "How could he do this? I am a criminal, and the bishop forgave me! He said I have a soul! What do I do now?"
"Who am I?"
At that moment, the man is no longer simply "Prisoner 24601," but himself - Jean Valjean. The rest of the musical reports his path of redemption and the good that he now does, aware that he doesn't deserve anything, but grateful nevertheless. It is a beautiful tale of forgiveness and grace - as well as how different people react to that grace.
And it all started with that bishop.
This is a wonderful illustration of the primacy of grace in our lives. If we are truly aware of ourselves and our sinfulness, we should know that we deserve nothing. However, it is precisely in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). It is grace that does this, plain and simple. There is no "earning" it; it is just God being God. The bishop in Les Mis is merely reflecting that love and forgiveness in his life to touch another. And this grace transforms us too. We are no longer "prisoners" to sin and death, but rather, we are who we are made to be: children of God, bought at a price, living out the love that frees us.