One of the nominees for “Best Picture” this year was the cinematic rendering of the musical production of Les Misérables. That story is one of the greatest tales of redemption in literature. In Victor Hugo’s novel, there is much attention given to a rather minor character in the musical – the Bishop of Digne. In fact, most of the first book of the novel is about this kind and saintly bishop, whom people knew as “Monsigneur Bienvenu” (“Bishop Welcome”).
In the story, the central character, Jean Valjean, after release from prison, finds himself in the company of the good bishop, who offers him lodging for the night. During the night, Valjean, convinced that he is now and forever a hardened criminal and a thief, steals silverware from the house and flees. The next day, Valjean is captured and returned to the bishop for accusation and re-arrest. However, the bishop sees more – he sees an opportunity for Valjean – an opportunity for salvation.
Taking two silver candlesticks from his mantle, he hands the treasures to the thief, telling him that he had forgotten to take them also. Valjean is shocked; the guards are confused; the bishop smiles. After the police leave, the bishop reminds Valjean that this is no ordinary gift. He is to now go and be an honest man. He tells him,
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
And, well, you know the rest. (If not, it is worth the musical, movie or book version of this classic tale!).
That is what we’re talking about here.
In the gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a doomed fig tree. The owner has had enough of its barrenness. He is ready to cast it out. However, the gardener intercedes for it, promising to care for it and help it. If after that it cannot produce, then it can be cast aside.
He redeems the tree.
Jesus is that gardener. God is the owner. His intervention is grace and the redemption of what God has created for good. And this neat little parable offers us a reminder of what happens in our Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Here, we are under the weight of sin, which keeps us from bearing the fruit that God intends in our lives. “The wages of sin is death,” as St. Paul says elsewhere. However, through the sacrament, we receive the forgiveness of sins and absolution from God, through the intervention of Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection make this reconciliation possible.
When we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we don’t do so to be reminded how bad we are. Rather, we do it to be reminded of how good God is. Thank about it: we know ourselves well; we know our failures, our brokenness and our sins. These might fill us with shame, fear and doubt. Of course, God is a forgiving God, but He is also just. Therefore, we know what our sins “deserve.” However, as we enter the sacrament and acknowledge that we are fruitless and broken, God reminds us – through the priest – of the lengths to which He will go to bring us back. “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself, and sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins…”
The gardener has intervened. Jesus has redeemed us. In the words of absolution from the priest, we hear that beautiful message again. We should never tire of hearing it. It is as if we are Jean Valjean, and the bishop has just handed us his silver candlesticks. And what are candlesticks for? For carrying light, of course. Now, forgiven and absolved, we return to our lives changed – changed by the mercy of God, to live fully for Him.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important part of our lives as Catholic Christians, because the mercy of God is central to our relationship with Him. It’s not about the priest; it’s about you, and God.
The chapter of Les Miz that describes that scene that I began with is entitled, “The Bishop Works.” It’s all about that life-changing moment when Valjean was redeemed by a pair of candlesticks. They are an integral part of the hero’s story.
The sacraments could also be called “God Works.” They, and especially Reconciliation, are moments of encounter with God that are life changing. From those moments, we rise again and carry our light to the rest of the world – forgiven, blessed, and changed for good.