Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Lesson From The Ascension Of Jesus And From Les Miserables: Only In Heaven Will We Experience Perfection

(Ascension Thursday 2012: This homily was given on May 17, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1: 1-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension 2012]

I’ll begin by giving some free publicity to David DeAngelis and the Westerly High School Theater Scrapbook Company:

This weekend they are performing Les Miserables—my favorite musical, which is based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name.

I highly recommend that you go.  (I already have my ticket for the matinee performance on Sunday afternoon.)

This is the ‘student edition’ of the show, which I’ve never seen.  But I have seen the full version of Les Miz three times—twice in Toronto and once in Providence—and for me, each of those performances, in addition to being very entertaining, was also a very powerful spiritual experience!

That’s because there are so many profound, gospel-inspired lessons in the story itself, and in the music and lyrics.

Now for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the story, the basic plot centers around a man named Jean Valjean, who lives in France at the beginning of the 19th century.  Valjean spends almost 20 years behind bars doing hard labor on a chain gang. 


For stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her child! 

Well, as you might imagine, he comes out of prison a bitter man: full of anger, hate, and unforgiveness.  And because of the yellow ticket he is forced to carry—which identifies him as a paroled criminal—nobody treats him kindly.  Nobody, that is, except a holy bishop.  The bishop takes Valjean in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep.  Valjean responds by running off in the middle of the night with some of the bishop’s silver!  The police catch him (Valjean never was a very good thief) and they bring him back to the bishop.  Well, both the thief and the police are shocked when the bishop says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift!  He even chastises Valjean for leaving behind part of the present: two valuable silver candlesticks.  The police, of course, are forced to let Valjean go, and so they leave the scene.  At that point the bishop says to Valjean (and here I’m quoting from the musical) . . .

But remember this, my brother

See in this some higher plan;

You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.

By the witness of the martyrs,

By the passion and the blood,

God has raised you out of darkness,

I have bought your soul for God.

At that moment, grace is given to Jean Valjean:  the grace of forgiveness, the grace that Jesus Christ won for him and for all of us by his passion, death and resurrection.  This grace that he didn’t deserve (that nobody deserves) comes to him through this saintly bishop.

And the good news is he responds to this grace by changing his life!  Consequently, for the rest of the story, Jean Valjean becomes a man for others, a man of mercy.  He becomes the mayor of a town, and he serves his people with kindness and compassion.  He befriends a dying prostitute, and raises her daughter as his own child when the prostitute dies.  He doesn’t just “talk the talk” of being a Christian, he also walks the walk—and he’s taken up to heaven at the end of the story to share the fullness of life with his risen Savior.

And this is where the connection with the Ascension of Jesus comes into the picture.  The Ascension of Jesus reminds us of our ultimate destiny, which is heaven.  This life is only for a time; this earth is not our final home.  As the Collect—the opening prayer for this Mass—put it, “Where the Head (that is, Jesus) has gone before in glory, the Body (that is, his Body, the Church) is called to follow in hope.”

And it’s important to remember that only in heaven will we experience perfection: perfect love, perfect happiness, perfect justice, perfect peace and perfect joy.  We will never experience those realities in their fullness here on this earth.

However many people over the centuries have made the mistake of thinking that they could experience those realities in their fullness here!  They’ve thought that they could create a kind of utopia—a heaven on earth—by their own power and according to their own design.

And they’ve ended up very frustrated and extremely unhappy.

In Les Miserables, these people are represented by the students—the idealistic students—who decide to revolt against their oppressive government. 

Their intentions are good; they mean well—but their revolt is a dismal failure.  Almost all of them die in a gun battle with government soldiers at the barricade in the center of the city.

After his conversion, Jean Valjean tried to make the world a better place by living and by loving as Jesus Christ lived and loved—which is exactly what we, as Christians, are called to do.  And he ended up experiencing some happiness in the process—especially through his adopted daughter, Cosette. 

But he didn’t believe for one minute that he could somehow create heaven on earth by his own will and power.

He knew better; he had suffered too much.  He was a Christian realist.

If you go to see Les Miz this weekend, please notice something: notice that all the characters in this story have hopes and dreams—but none of them finds perfect happiness.  Not a single one.  Some, like Valjean, do find a measure of happiness—praise God—but even these characters are “les miserables” (i.e., the wretched ones). 

Happiness (to the extent that we can experience it in this life), comes from keeping our eyes on our goal of heaven, and by living in faith, in hope and in charity.

Just like Jean Valjean.

It’s all summed up beautifully in the final song of the musical, in these words that are sung by the souls welcoming Jean Valjean into heaven.

May they inspire all of us to keep our eyes on the light of God’s kingdom, as we strive to live in faith, hope and love here on earth:

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!