(Spoiler alert-if you’ve never seen Les Miserables and intend to, I give away some crucial plot points in the last paragraph)
The first time I saw Les Miserables I was 13 years old. I cried through the entire thing and bawled especially hard at Fantine’s last line, “And remember, the truth that once was spoken…to love another person is to see the face of God.”
Over Christmas break I watched the movie with my family (our fourth or fifth time seeing the play together) and as always cried through the entire thing. At this point the play is so tied up with memories of family outings and Christmases that it would be impossible for me to evaluate it in any unbiased way, but one thing that has continued to surprise me over and over again as I’ve grown up are the beautiful ways the scenes of grace and forgiveness strengthen and deepen the narrative. As my own concepts of grace and forgiveness have evolved, I’ve realized their incredible importance when we speak about love.
This line, “to love another person is to see the face of God” has popped up everywhere. My former high school youth have it as their facebook statuses, college friends have tweeted it, and seminary friends have posted it on the walls of their bedrooms and offices. I wonder if it would be so prevalent if people understood how truly radical this concept is. If loving another person leads to a more intimate knowledge of God, then this love costs us something.
Unfortunately, the concept of “love” has become entangled with the concept of “niceness.” I was walking along King Street the other day when I was startled to hear a young man shout something at me. I turned and looked at him, puzzled, and he repeated what he had yelled earlier. “I love you!” I realized he was part of a group of people shouting, I love you, to people as they walked down the street. He quickly moved on to the person behind me, shouting, “I love you!” to them as well.
I left that encounter feeling unsettled and uncomfortable and thinking, how could you possibly say, “I love you” to me? You have no idea who I am, what I struggle with, where I find joy. You know nothing of my story or my life. In short, you know nothing that the people who do love me know about me. He also clearly had no desire to engage me in order to learn these things. The encounter reminded me of a group of people in my undergrad days who would hand out smiley face cookies on campus with an inspirational quote to provide a pick-me-up for whoever needed a nice gesture that day.
Now I am not so embittered to think that it is a terrible thing to hand out cookies as “random acts of niceness.” A small act to show a person that someone cares about them is not wrong or bad. But “I love you” cannot be that act of niceness. Shouting “I love you” to me cost that young man nothing (except maybe embarrassment if he ever understands how invasive he was being). I am not interested in love that costs nothing. More importantly, I don’t think Jesus is interested in love that costs nothing. When Christ asked the disciples to follow him, to be in relationship with him, he didn’t say, “Will you be nice to me when I’m in town?” He said, give up everything and follow me.
Christ’s love costs something; something we try to emulate in intentional community. It’s so incredibly difficult because it’s more than being a good roommate or being nice to each other, but saying to the person, I will not let you destroy yourself; I will not let you continue in unhealthy patterns. This love isn’t always comfortable and warm and gooey. It’s sometimes hard conversations about hard truths. And it’s also hand in hand with grace and forgiveness. Loving another person, the way that God intended, means asking to be a part of their life in ways that only make sense if we engage people with grace and forgiveness; ways that say we are both going to mess up and we’re going to call each other out, because we want to live deeper into who God created us to be. This love doesn’t call for surface perfection, but for permission to shine light on the deepest, most shameful parts of us because of a foundation of grace and forgiveness.
So we cannot separate Fantine’s line from the story of Valjean being forgiven by the Bishop he stole silverware from, from Valjean’s forgiveness of Javert when he had the opportunity to kill him and even from Javert’s suicide due to his rigid, black and white faith that made no room for grace or forgiveness (In his eyes, once a criminal, always a criminal). To do so would be to rob the story of the deep, painful and beautiful theology that forgiveness and grace provide a space for love that allows for failure and human brokenness. To do so would be to forget the truth that once was spoken, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”