Why are we so touched by this story? The music is powerful and beautiful, but it has to be more than catchy songs. Rent has catchy songs, and we love Rent, but people aren't stirred by Rent the way they are Les Mis. So it must be something in the story.
Les Mis is a story of redemption. And we do love stories of redemption, don't we? We love to see people get turned around. From street thug to Olympic athlete. Crackhead to pastor. Sinner to saint. There are so many stories of violence, destruction and waste; our hopes are lifted by one who reverses that course and chooses instead service, compassion and grace.
So we appreciate Jean Valjean's story of redemption - that he still has a caring heart after the unjust punishment he's endured. Some even call him Christ-like in his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.
And yet...it's not really Jean Valjean's story that emotionally binds us, is it? It's the others. The tragic. The unfortunates. Les miserables. It's the heart-wrenching affections that there are dreams that can not be, and he was never mine to lose.
So what keeps the story of Les Mis from being a complete wrist-slasher by the time it's over? Could you imagine if you went to your editor and said, "I have this great idea for a book: Everyone is beaten and downtrodden and miserable and then in the end, they all die! Uh-huh! Yeah!"
It is the light of grace. It is that in each of their stories - even the most tragic - the light of grace shines through a simple act of love and compassion. Even Fantine. Even Eponine. Even the abused urchin who dreams of a mother to love her. No matter how far they've been beaten down - how miserable their lives have been - in the end, they find peace because someone shows them just a moment of love.
The real theme of Les Mis comes in one of the very last lines of the play:
To love another person is to see the face of God.
That is how God's grace shines on us - through the compassion of others. And how we, in turn, share the grace we have received.
Anne Lamott said, "The mystery of grace is that God loves Jerry Sandusky just as much as our grandchildren." If you believe that God Is Love, then He loves the thief and the prostitute and the child abusers and the suicidal prison guard all the same. Everyone deserves to see the face of God. Everyone deserves to be loved.
Well, except maybe for the Thernadiers.