Sermon for Williamstown
27th of November 2016
In 1990, when I was sixteen years old, I became obsessed with Les Misérables – first the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, and then the book by Victor Hugo on which it’s based. It began when my aunt gave my parents and siblings and me tickets to the musical for Christmas. While watching it I started crying when Fantine died, in the first half of the first act, and I didn’t stop crying until about half an hour after I left the theatre. I was so moved by the show that I insisted that some of my closest friends had to come and see it with me, and I wagged school one lunchtime to go and buy the tickets. I talked about it so incessantly with my friends that one of them bought me a copy of the novel, and although it’s over a thousand pages long, and I was doing Year Twelve and should have been focusing on maths and physics, I read it from cover to cover in a couple of weeks. I still reread it every five years or so.
Les Misérables is ostensibly about the Paris Uprising of 1848, but you don’t need to know anything about French history because it’s not really about that. It is the story of Jean Valjean, a recently-released convict who steals silver from a bishop who has been kind to him. He is caught with the silver still on him and when the police catch him and bring him back before the bishop the bishop says, ‘I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?’ With that act the bishop saves Valjean, physically and spiritually. The bishop is what all clergy-people should be: an agent of God. Valjean experiences a storm of disillusionment that swamps him, but the presence of God in the forgiveness of the bishop gives him the strength to survive and the courage to hope.
The ‘ray of darkness’ that showed Valjean to himself continues to illuminate him, giving him self-understanding and a self-love that enables him to love his foster-daughter Cosette and be loved by her. At the very end of his life, as Valjean lies dying he is asked whether he wants a priest and Hugo writes: ‘“I have one,’ Jean Valjean replied; and he pointed upwards as though there were some other being present whom he alone could see. Indeed it is not improbable that the bishop was present in those last moments of his life.’ I’m not a big fan of the Hugh Jackman film version of Les Misérables – there’s just no way that I can ever accept Russell Crowe as Javert – but that is one thing that it got absolutely right. In the film the first thing that Jean Valjean does after he dies is walk to an altar at which the bishop is standing, waiting for him.
I love Jean Valjean, but when I was sixteen I was more immediately affected by the student revolutionaries who took to the barricades to fight for a new world in which poverty would disappear. Almost all of them die, including the leader, Enjolras, of whom Hugo wrote:
It seemed that the dignity of Enjolras, weaponless and motionless, weighed upon the tumult, and that this young man, the only one unwounded, proud, blood-spattered, charming, as disdainful as though he were invulnerable, impelled the sinister group to kill him with respect. His beauty, now enhanced by pride, was radiant, and as though he could be neither fatigued nor wounded, even after the appalling twenty-four hours which had passed, his cheeks were flushed with health.’
When I first saw the musical he was played by Anthony Warlow, who was so good that he was part of the international cast put together for the symphonic recording. At that very impressionable age I fell in love with Enjolras. My family occasionally worries that I have a martyr complex, but it’s not true. What’s true is that when I was sixteen Les Misérables and Enjolras taught me that dying on the barricades for what I believe is a valid life choice.
Why am I talking so much about Les Misérables? This isn’t just a book and/or musical review, although I do recommend that if you haven’t read or watched or listened to Les Misérables you do that as soon as you possibly can. I’m talking about Les Misérables because today is the first Sunday of Advent.
As I’ve reminded us in previous years, what we’re primarily preparing for in Advent is the second coming of Christ, not the first. All the readings we heard today talk about that second coming, the parousia. In the reading from the Letter to the Romans Paul tells his readers that they know what time it is, and the Greek word he uses for time is kairos, not chronos, a special moment rather than chronological time. He reminds his readers that Christians are living between the dawn and the full day. The dawn was the resurrection of Jesus, the new age has come. But day, the second coming, has not yet arrived.
In Advent, we’re preparing for the day. The reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminds us that no one knows when it will come, which is why Paul wants us to live in continuous readiness for it. When no one expects it, Matthew writes, we will suddenly see the full manifestation of the kingdom of God. The reign of God will begin, the time when God will teach us and judge us justly. Today’s reading from Isaiah describes it as the time when God:
shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Rereading that passage from Isaiah for today made me realise that Les Misérables is an Advent musical. Near the end of the first act the revolutionary students sing ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ which starts with Enjolras asking:
Do you hear the people sing
singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
echoes the beating of the drums
there is a life about to start
when tomorrow comes!
It’s very inspiring, and whenever I hear it I want to take immediately to the barricades. But that song is repeated, with differences, at the musical’s very end. The students have all died at the barricades, and as Jean Valjean dies, finally at peace, we hear and see them singing ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ again, but this time drawing on the Prophet Isaiah for inspiration:
Do you hear the people sing
lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
and all men will have their reward.
The students tried to bring about the new world with revolutionary violence, and they failed. But this finale tells us that the new world will come, just as Isaiah has promised. It won’t come through human violence; it will come through God’s peace. The finale tells us the same thing that today’s readings tell us. The future is God’s. We’re called to live with the assurance that peace will come. We are called, as Isaiah tells us, to ‘walk in the light of the Lord’. We are called to live, as Paul reminds us, ‘honourably as in the day’. We don’t know the time of the second coming, but we do know how we are to live in the meantime, doing acts of mercy, forgiveness and peace. Sixteen-year-old me wanted to be Enjolras and take to the barricades. Forty-three-year-old me prays that God will enable me to live like an elderly bishop who can welcome and forgive a thief who steals his silver.
This is the message of Advent. This is a time when we rejoice not only that God came among us, was incarnate in Jesus, but that Christ has promised to come again. This is a season of hope and peace and joy and love. Thanks be to God!