It’s a story about candlesticks.
Jean Valjean, a hardened criminal, is released from prison. He has served nineteen years for a heinous crime: he stole a loaf of bread. Okay, Okay. He also tried to escape multiple times. But can you blame the guy? Valjean is blessed with freakish strength and agility, so escape was easy. Freedom? That was hard.
When he finally was released from prison, Valjean hoped to gain that elusive freedom. But with a reputation of criminality and a hardened aspect from years of harsh treatment, Valjean was hard pressed to find solace in society. Finally, Valjean found his break. When he stole silver from the Bishop of Digne, Valjean knew he would have the funds he needed to establish himself in society. But when he was caught, he was doomed.
It’s time for the candlesticks to make their grand appearance.
The bishop shocks us when, instead of prosecuting Valjean, he insists to the authorities that he himself gave Valjean the silver. And he freely offers Valjean the candlesticks too. In the presence of witnesses, the bishop purchases Valjean’s freedom. He is made an honest man through another man’s sacrifice. It is unmerited, it is undeserved, and it embodies both mercy and grace. Mercy came when he was not given the punishment he deserved for theft, and grace came when he was given something he didn’t deserve: the candlesticks.
Valjean spends the remainder of his life working to offer others that same type of merciful grace. By contrast, Valjean’s antagonist Javert seeks justice. Rules must be followed. Laws must be enforced. What is mercy? What is grace? To Javert, they don’t exist.
The book is thick, daunting, and maybe a little frightening. But Hugo’s message has been so well-received, that countless plays, movies, and adaptations have been made. I’ve only shared the beginning of Valjean’s journey, because with the giving of the candlesticks, his life began.
I wonder what candlesticks I have to offer today? When I’ve been wronged, I can usually find it in my heart to offer forgiveness. With a lot of work and plenty of prayers, I can justify the actions of the offender. I can close that chapter of my life and move on. But to offer a gift? To GIVE to someone who has TAKEN from me? No. It’s not something that comes easily. I’ll be honest. It doesn’t even cross my mind.
Hugo asked more from his readers. He gave us an unexpected hero in the criminal Jean Valjean. He was a selfless man motivated by his own humble weaknesses. Valjean kept giving when others were taking. He didn’t seek revenge, and he only sought to bring healing by continual giving.
It all started with candlesticks.
I look around me. I’ve got plenty of candlesticks in my life. They are things that I dare not live without. I might give them to a friend. But give them to an enemy? Wow. I just don’t know if I could.
So I’m challenged and motivated by Valjean. Hugo knew that Valjean needed inspiration, and that inspiration came from the bishop. A former aristocrat, the Bishop of Digne returned to France after the French Revolution committed to the cloth. He traveled into the mountains among thieves and hardened men; he cared not. He served with abandon, for his life was not his own. His candlesticks weren’t his own. He said they belonged to God.
True heroes need the ability to let go. Their personal needs are secondary to the needs of the hurting, lonely, hardened, or oppressed. Valjean needed rescuing from himself. He needed to be set free. Who knew candlesticks could change a man’s life?
Les Miserables sits in my musty study. The tear-stained pages testify to its importance. It will forever remain. . . right next to my silver candlesticks.