March 8, 2019 — There is a very moving scene at the beginning of the novel (and the musical) Les Misérables where Jean Valjean — newly released from prison, having enjoyed the hospitality of a poor country bishop and having repaid that hospitality by robbing the poor man of all the “precious silver” for the celebration of mass — is caught by the gendarmes and brought back to the church. The bishop, knowing full well the guilt of Valjean, denies that the silver was stolen and in the presence of the officers hands Valjean two more silver candlesticks. This unconditional generosity transforms Valjean, who becomes an honest and successful businessman, and eventually the mayor of his town, though under a pseudonym, to protect himself from his past.
Many years later, Javert, a police inspector obsessed with Valjean’s capture, tracks him down to the little town where he has established himself. He mistakes another townsman for Valjean and has him arrested. Valjean is faced with a dilemma: shall he allow an innocent man to be jailed (and thus ensure his own freedom) or shall he reveal his true identity, risking the loss of all the good he has achieved over many years? It seems that the freedom God has granted him is threatened by the very goodness and honesty he has offered to God.
He chooses to save the life of the innocent and acknowledge his true identity. In that moment, he remembers who he really is, not just a good and honest man, but a redeemed criminal. When he claims his full identity as a beloved and healed sinner, his true and lasting liberation happens.
The Lenten readings and liturgies often draw our attention to this necessary act of memory:
- The traditional Ash Wednesday phrase “Remember you are dust,” which calls us to remember we are creatures and not God
- Moses’ instruction for the offering of the harvest (“A wandering Aramean was my father…”)
- the Transfiguration, where Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah about the meaning of the history of Israel
- God’s naming of himself in the desert (“I am the God of your ancestors”)
- Jesus’ temptation in the desert, where he overcomes the enemy by remembering who he is before the Father
In these and in many other places, we are encouraged to remember God’s goodness to us, and in remembering this, to “come back to ourselves” like the Prodigal (gospel of the 4th Sunday of Lent). He remembers who he is, and remembering, finds the courage and the freedom to take the steps that lead him home.
There are many forces at work in our lives that would dictate to us who we are: economic forces, cultural and social influences, political ideologies, and so on. All of these forces keep us living on the surface of our lives, away from who we really are before God. This Lent, take the time to remember and savour who you really are in God’s eyes by remembering God’s goodness to you. And then choose Lenten practices that will help you grow in your ability to express more faithfully this truer and deeper identity in everything you do.
– reprinted with permission of Novalis Publishing