How can a musical about the "miserable ones" win hearts in a postmodern world? How can a love story speak to people in a time marked by cynicism and threatened by a looming sense of meaninglessness?
If you have not yet seen Les Miserables, treat yourself to this beautiful film--and soon. It's a dramatic story filled with great characters and powerful life lessons, and it might just be a sign of hope for our time. Why a sign of hope? I think, at some level, people have been moved by the story because it boldly retraces a way of looking at suffering that is totally counter-cultural.
Since the beginning of time, one of the ultimate questions of human existence has centered on suffering: why does it exist, and how ought we to respond to it? Suffering seems to be woven into the fabric of human existence in our fallen world, and we are faced with often daily decisions about how to respond. In our early 21st Century mindset, there seem to be only two possible paths of resistance to suffering--it's either "fight" or "flight." Either we strive to overcome and eliminate suffering, or we seek to escape its debilitating grasp. We all know the myriad forms of escapism that are available today, not to mention the extreme forms of eliminating suffering that are now being promoted as human "rights." But we also know that these options ultimately fail and so leave us with a profound sense of hopelessness.
Les Miserables, however, opens a window onto a third alternative. It is the path of redemptive suffering. It is a life of self-sacrificing love which alone brings meaning in the face of senseless suffering. It is the Way which was made a reality by Christ himself--the Way which has been walked by countless humble souls, thanks to the gift of his Spirit.
After all Jesus didn't seek to eliminate suffering, nor did he seek to avoid or evade it. No, his relationship with suffering was something totally different. He entered into the lives of les miserables and transformed them from within. His Way, the Way of the Lover, reveals a third possibility for each one of us. It is the path of authentic compassion and sincere solidarity. It is a Way to overcome the false compassion of those who now advocate assisted suicide, and it is a Way to crush the head of the serpent despair.
Redemptive suffering invites us to take up our cross each day and so unite ourselves more closely to him. It invites us to share in the suffering of others and so bring the face of love to places of darkness. Christ does not call us to do anything alone or anything he didn't do. Rather, he invites us down this new path: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23).
God is self-giving and self-sacrificing love. And redemptive suffering reminds us that real love is a matter of laying down one's life for the beloved. In the words of a song from the film, "to love another person is to see the face of God"--even and especially in the face of suffering!