|Jean Valjean and the Bishop (scene from Les Miserables)|
There is a scene found in the beginning of the story Les Miserables (currently playing at theaters as an award-winning movie) that is quite striking. Jean Valjean has been freed from his twenty year imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread yet he is still ostracized by society due to the identification papers he must carry on himself. The papers testify that he is a former convict and therefore no one wants anything to do with him. Embittered by this, not able to find work and left starving, Jean Valjean finds himself taken in one night by a Catholic bishop. He is given a warm meal and a place to sleep. Yet, in the middle of the night in an act of desperation and anger, Jean Valjean makes off with the bishop’s silverware. He is caught by the local authorities and brought back, yet the bishop (at this point) does a truly remarkable thing. Knowing full well what Jean Valjean has done, the bishop tells the officers that he freely gave him the silverware and he even tops this by giving him his last two candlesticks. Jean Valjean is freed and by this act of charity is given a new life.
In light of this Sunday’s gospel (Jn. 2:1-11) I would say that this bishop through his action of forgiveness and mercy not only gave Jean Valjean a new life but invited him into the wedding banquet.
The turning of water into wine is the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry. As Christians we rightly see this miracle and the context in which it occurs (the wedding banquet) as a foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of God which Christ comes to inaugurate. The wedding banquet is a celebration of great joy and union. The Kingdom of God is the fulfillment of all humanity’s hope and yearning where heaven and earth are once more united. At the wedding banquet water is turned into wine; in the Kingdom of God the daily and mundane is transformed into moments of rich encounter with the divine.
The wedding banquet and its miracle is rich in typology and in symbols for Christians yet I would like to continue to hold this miracle story in dialogue with the action of the bishop from Victor Hugo’s book in order to bring out another dimension found within the gospel story. As Christians, not only are we to rejoice in the banquet ourselves we are also meant to invite others within. In truth, we cannot fully celebrate the banquet ourselves unless we see to the needs of others; unless we also invite others within through acts of mercy and love.
Mary, as always, is the model in this for us. Mary is a woman fully immersed in the culture of her time and she knows the importance of the wedding banquet. She is concerned for the good of this young couple and she knows how poorly it might reflect on them if the wine runs out. Possibly they were from poorer families who could not afford a lavish celebration. It is Mary’s awareness of the need of this young couple and her concern for them that leads her to her son just as it is the bishop’s awareness of Jean Valjean’s need that leads him to mercy. Confident in the mercy and love of her son, Mary does not even question or argue after making her request known rather she turns to the servers and simply says, Do whatever he tells you.
The logic of the banquet (which is the logic of the Kingdom of God) is that mercy and love must be extended. It is not enough to celebrate the banquet for ourselves; in fact that is a truly impoverished celebration. To truly celebrate the banquet we must be willing to let go of ourselves – our needs and wants – and we must be willing to extend love and mercy to one another – to family, to friends and to strangers. It is that simple. This is the logic of the banquet and it is the logic of the Kingdom of God which overcomes all the false philosophies and sad divisions of our world. As Christians, we are called to live the logic of the wedding banquet.
At the end of the story when Jean Valjean is being led to eternal rest – a true father who gave of his life for his adopted daughter Cossette – he shares this wisdom, “To love another person is to see the very face of God.”
To live a life in the logic of the banquet – helping to extend God’s love and mercy to all people – is to know God and to share already in joy of his Kingdom.