Last week I was talking with a friend. We were reflecting on the meaning of Lent and, our own Lenten practices, or in my case, non practices. I have always been really poor at giving things up and, the alternative approach of taking up new and positive disciplines has never really felt right. My friend has enjoyed more success, but still felt that Lent had more to offer.
In our discussion we came up with three Lenten themes, or challenges, that we felt hit the nail on the head. We felt the challenge to love, to listen and to let go (and trust).
On Friday I went to the cinema with my daughters to watch Les Miserables. The film was great, so were the pop corn, pick and mix and fizzy drinks! To my surprise I found myself thinking about my Lenten challenges through the medium of the film.
If you haven’t seen the film, or play, here is a brief ‘theological’ synopsis: The main character Jean Valjean, having been released from nineteen years in prison (for stealing a crust of bread), can’t find work and shelter, because he has been branded as a criminal. Eventually he is offered sanctuary in Digne Cathedral by its bishop (Myriel). In his desperation Valjean steals the cathedrals silverware. Valjean is caught by the police. Myriel covers for him, telling the police that the silverware was given as an act of charity. He then extends his charity by giving two extremely valuable candlesticks. Finding it hard to cope with Myriel’s compassion Valjean is depicted kneeling at an alter and, asking the great ‘I am,’ who ‘am I?’ He listens to God and resolves to become an honest man. In fact he becomes a wealthy industrialist. When one of his employees (Fantine) is thrown out of the factory, by his less than loving foreman, and falls into prostitution, full of guilt, for failing to notice what had happened (he was confronting his long-term adversary Javert), he promises to find her daughter (Cossette), to love her, to look after her. He keeps his promise. He does so despite the fact that he lives in permanent danger of being discovered by Javert. Eventually after several twists and turns Valjean and Cosette arrive in Paris where Cosette falls in love with the wealthy revolutionary Marius Pontmercy. Valjean is loathe to give Cosette, the person he loves mos,t away but eventually does so, after having saved Pontmercy’s life. Jabert continues to pursue Valjean and tracks him down amidst the revolutionaries. Jabert masquerades as a revolutionary but his true identity is revealed and Valjean is given the opportunity to exact revenge. He refuses to kill Jabert and, instead forgives him. Jabert is unable to cope with the forgives offered and is seen singing ‘who am I’ before eventually committing suicide. The two central protagonists stand in contrast to each other. Through love Valjean is transformed, through love Jabert is convicted. Each make their own choice. One listens to the Divine impulse, the other shuts his ears.
Loving and letting go, are inextricably intertwined. At the end of the film Valjean finds sanctuary in a monastery, where he prepares for the final letting go, as he faces death. Cosette and Pontmercy find Valjean at the monastery hoping to persuade him to come and live with them, but he is determined to let go of this life so that Cosette and Pontmercy can learn to live together, in love. In the final scene of the film Valjean is beckoned into heaven by Fantine and welcomed by Myriel. In letting go he finds real and enduring love.
The interconnectedness of life, where one choice made has long-term and eternal consequences, is a central theme of the story. Myriel’s charity leads to Valjean’s eternal salvation (maybe even his own?) Sitting before God, and listening to his prayer ‘who am I’ being answered leads Valjean into a new life, and one where he is able to act with decency to his employees and townsfolk and, true charity towards Cossette and Pontmercy. In embracing life, as a true lover, Valjean is eventually able to let go of his past and enter into eternal life.
So are there any Lenten passages that support these themes, of love, listening and letting go? Matthew 25, 31-end (the Parable of the Sheep and Goats – Monday’s gospel reading) certainly supports the call to charity, and its relationship to salvation. Another relevant passage maybe Deuteronomy 30, 15 – end (last Thursday’s Old Testament reading) from which the following stand out:
‘See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous………Choose life so that you and your descendents may live……..for that means life for you and length of days.’
Can we make time to love, listen and let go this Lent?
Is there anyone we need to forgive?