John 3:14-21 (4th Sunday of Advent, year b)
Les Misérables, the famous novel written by Victor Hugo, is a work soaked in the Christian theme of mercy. Mercy is particularly at work in the life of one of the main characters, Jean Valjean. His story can help us better understand the conversation about mercy we find in today’s Gospel between Jesus and Nicodemus. In this, Jesus explains how the Father has sent His Son to save us through the free gift of His life, rather than punish us for our sins. In His great mercy, God is not only patient with us sinners, waiting for us to convert, but seeks us out, always making the first move. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, three aspects of God’s mercy stand out.
- By it’s very nature mercy is a freely given gift, something we cannot earn.
- Mercy is a gift that, once accepted, is meant to change us.
- Surprisingly, some people choose to refuse the gift of God’s mercy.
Looking more closely at the life of Jean Valjean helps us better appreciate these three aspects of God’s mercy.
When we first meet Valjean, he is recently released after spending 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed a hungry child. His heart is hardened. Because of his past, Valjean is rejected wherever he goes; he cannot find decent work or a place to live. One day, an elderly Bishop warmly welcomes Valjean into his home, giving him food and a place to sleep. In return for this hospitality, Valjean robbed the Bishop of his silverware in the middle of the night. In the morning, Valjean was arrested and brought before the Bishop by the authorities. They explained that Valjean claimed the Bishop gave him the silverware. Because this is his second offence, Valjean certainly faces life imprisonment with no hope of parole. He is despondent. The Bishop then does something totally unexpected. He tells the guards to release Valjean, explaining that he told them the truth. The silverware was in fact a gift. More than this, he begins scolding Valjean for not taking the valuable silver candlesticks as well. Valjean is shocked and cannot comprehend the Bishop’s behaviour. When they are alone, the Bishop tells Valjean to go and make a new life for himself. He tells him that with these silver candlesticks he has ransomed his soul for God. He is to no longer to live in darkness but the light.
What the Bishop did for Valjean was a totally gratuitous act. It was in no way motivated by self interest. Valjean did nothing to deserve it. It was an act of pure mercy. The Bishop’s gesture is a reflection of what God has done for us. In His mercy, Jesus ransomed us from death to life by giving up His life. It is a total gift. We cannot earn it, only accept it. When we accept God’s mercy it changes our life.
This is exactly what happened to Valjean. He left the Bishop a changed man. After some time he became the mayor of a small town. He was renowned for his generosity to the poor. His self-sacrificing love is most evident when he adopts, at great risk and cost to himself, Cosette, the daughter of one of his workers who has died. During the course of Les Misérables we discover how the Bishop’s selfless act of love and mercy to Valjean transformed him to become someone who is also selfless, generous and loving. In the end, he becomes like the saintly Bishop.
The transformation of Valjean is a model for how we all should be transformed when we accept God’s mercy. God gives us His mercy freely so that in accepting it we become channels of love and mercy to those around use. This is the principle shown in the Gospel and mirrored in Les Misérables. Imagine for a moment if God’s love and mercy were not free, if we really thought that we had somehow earned it. If this were the case, then we would not show love and mercy freely to others. We would make them earn it from us. Jesus came into the world freely to give His life for us and save us. Jesus made Himself a gift for us, so that in accepting Him we would choose to make ourselves a gift for others. St. Athanasius explained it this way: “He became what we are, so that he might make us what He is". We know we have truly accepted God’s mercy for us when we become more merciful and loving to those around us.
It is difficult to appreciate how anyone could refuse God’s free gift of eternal life. Yet Jesus in the Gospel tells us that people will. The life of Valjean offers us a glimpse as to how this could be so. After Valjean has begun his new life, he is constantly pursued and harassed by his former jailor, Javert. Javert is a man who lives by the letter of the law. In his world, even the slightest infraction must be punished to the full. He understands nothing of mercy. At a crucial moment in the story, Valjean is given the opportunity to kill Javert and be free of him forever. Instead, Valjean spares his life, expecting nothing in return. Valjean does for Javert what the Bishop did for him years ago. He shows him mercy. Now Javert has the chance to become a channel of grace and mercy himself. But this act of love breaks Javert. He cannot understand and appreciate Valjean’s action. He has never shown mercy to anyone in his life and now he refuses to accept it for himself. In the end he chooses to throw himself off a bridge into the river because he cannot live in a world where mercy and love can triumph over the law. Javert shows us what damnation means. People who go to Hell choose to go there because they refuse, until the end, to accept God’s free offer of mercy. Even now, we make life hell for ourselves and others when we refuse to show mercy to those around us.
Recently Pope Francis made a very unexpected announcement. He declared that the coming year would be an Extraordinary Jubilee Year. These holy years are special moments in the Church when we are encouraged in a particular way to grow closer to God. The last Jubilee Year was 2000. Pope Francis announced that this coming Jubilee Year would a Holy Year celebrating the Mercy of God. During this year, Pope Francis calls all of us to a greater appreciation and acceptance of God’s mercy in our own life. More importantly, he wants to ensure that the Church and each one more fully become channels of mercy to those around us. As we prepare to start this year, we can ask ourselves a simple question: who am I more like, Jean Valjean or Javert?