Sunday, January 13, 2013

Jean Valjean and the Grace of Baptism

Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) receiving the silver candlesticks from the Bishop of Digne (top); then, after his conversion, with his adopted daughter, Cosette.
(Baptism of the Lord (C): This homily was given on January 13, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Titus 2: 11-14;
3: 4-7; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2013]


“I am reaching, but I fall, and the night is closing in, as I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin.”

As many of us know, those are the words of Jean Valjean in the musical (and now the movie), Les Miserables—both of which are based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name.

Valjean says these words after the Bishop of Digne has extended to him the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ—mercy and forgiveness that Valjean definitely did not deserve!

Most of you know the story, but for the benefit of the few who don’t: the basic plot centers around this 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! 

Not exactly what I would call “perfect justice”.  And so, as you might imagine, Valjean comes out of prison a bitter man: full of anger, full of hate, full of unforgiveness.  And because of the yellow ticket he’s forced to carry—which identifies him as a paroled criminal—nobody treats him kindly.  Nobody, that is, except the Bishop of Digne.  This holy man takes Valjean in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep.  Valjean responds to these acts of love by running off in the middle of the night with some of the bishop’s silver!  The police quickly 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 insists 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.

By the way, in the new movie version of the story, they changed that last line to, “I have saved your soul for God”—which I like even better.  It makes the point even more powerfully.

At that moment, grace is offered 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.

Valjean then goes through an internal struggle.  He’s been touched by this act of kindness and love and he suddenly wants to change, but how can he?  How can he possibly wipe away his terrible past and live a new life?

Well, the simple answer is that he can’t!  He can’t merit the grace that will change his life and make him pleasing to God—which is precisely why he says those words I quoted to you at the beginning of my homily: “I am reaching, but I fall [in other words, ‘I am trying to escape from my sins and from my evil past, but, by my own power and merits, I realize that I can’t do it!’, and [thus] the night is closing in, as I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin [a whirlpool that threatens to take me down forever!].”

Of course, the good news for Jean Valjean was that he didn’t have to do it by his own power and merits!  As the Bishop had reminded him, “by the passion and the blood”—that is to say, by the passion and the blood of Jesus Christ—the grace of justification, the grace that could cleanse him and make him pleasing to the heavenly Father, had already been purchased for him.

All Valjean needed to do was accept it. 

And he did!

Here, my brothers and sisters, we learn an important lesson about Baptism, and about the grace of Baptism (which is what the Church calls ‘sanctifying grace’).  This is the grace that makes us pleasing to God.  It’s the grace we need in our souls at the end of our lives if we want to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven!

But this is a grace that we can’t earn or merit initially—which is a tough idea for some Catholics to swallow, since they actually believe that they can somehow “earn” the grace of salvation by their own good deeds.

Ask Catholics and other Christians the question, “Why should God let you into heaven?” and many of them will respond by saying things like: “He should let me into heaven because I’ve obeyed the commandments,” or “He should let me into heaven because I’ve performed many acts of charity in my life,” or “He should let me into heaven because I’ve been a really good person”—or something along those lines.

But all of those answers are wrong!

Please hear this: The only reason God will let you or me or anyone else into his eternal kingdom is not because of anything we have done for him; it’s because of what his Son, Jesus Christ, has done for us through his passion, death and resurrection!

We cannot save ourselves; it’s impossible!  God, in his mercy and love, has to save us—which is precisely why he gave us the sacrament of Baptism!  Through Baptism we are freely given the grace that Jesus won for us on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  In fact, that’s precisely what it means to have original sin “taken away”!  Original sin is not like the personal sins that we commit in our lives and confess in the confessional; original sin is actually the lack of something: the lack of sanctifying grace!  Original sin means that we come into this world without sanctifying grace in our souls.

And, as I said earlier, we need this grace in our souls if we want to be able to pass through the pearly gates when we die!

The early Fathers of the Church used to say that, when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus “sanctified the waters”.  In other words, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, because he had no sin.  He received the baptism of John (which had no power to forgive sin in and of itself) to give us an example.  He did it as a sign of what he wanted his followers to do after his resurrection; and as a sign of the fact that the Christian sacrament of Baptism would have the power to forgive all sin and give us eternal life!

Now does that mean that keeping the commandments and doing good deeds are not important?  No, it doesn’t!  Those things are extremely important!  First of all, if we don’t strive to keep the commandments, we will probably end up committing a mortal sin and losing sanctifying grace.  And, as I indicated earlier, if we die without sanctifying grace in our soul, there’s only one direction we can go—and it’s not “up”!

(Of course, the good news is that while we’re here on this earth we can always get sanctifying grace back by going to confession.)

And, secondly, even though we can’t merit the initial grace of salvation, we can grow in sanctifying grace by our acts of faith and charity (see CCC, 2010), and thus have a higher place in heaven when our earthly life is over.

Not surprisingly, we also see this truth beautifully portrayed in Les Miserables, once again by Jean Valjean.  No, he couldn’t merit the initial grace of salvation that came to him through the bishop, but for the rest of his life—by his acts of love and mercy and sacrifice—he did GROW in that grace!  So much so, that, at the very end of Valjean’s life, his son-in-law Marius could say to Cosette, Valjean’s daughter, “Cosette, your father is a saint!”

From criminal to saint—by the power of God’s grace! 

That’s what Les Miserables is all about.  And that’s why every Catholic should see this movie!

Listen again, now, to these words from our second reading, which I will use to conclude my homily this morning.  Almost everything that I’ve just said to you is summarized in these short verses from St. Paul’s letter to Titus:

“For the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good. But when the kindness and generous love of God our Savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”  (Titus 2: 11-14; 3: 4-7)

To which Jean Valjean would say a very big, “Amen!”

Hopefully, so do we.