The Scary, Beautiful Way Grace Upends the Universe
This post originally appeared on Chris Cruz's blog, chrisjosephcruz.com.
Last year I had the joy of going to New York on a holiday with my wife.
We were celebrating our last vacation together as a family of two, and we wanted to take a “grown up” trip before our lives were filled with rest stops and singalongs. New York was the dream of Leisha’s heart–and seeing a show in New York was the gooey centre of that dream. So, in the middle of the week, I found myself at the bottom of a steel canyon, looking up with thousands of others at these endless currents of backlit glass.
We waited in line at Times Square for discount admission to Broadway from the red TKTS booth for about an hour. They call it the TKTS booth because New York doesn’t have time for vowels, and doesn’t even bother pronouncing them. Once you get to the front of the counter, you have roughly 0.03 seconds (A New York minute, I presume) to decide what show you want to see. We made our choice for a play called “Lés Miserables”. I had no idea it would change my life.
You buy your tkts for that evening, so only hours later we were back on Broadway, filing into our seats. The trick is to get there early enough to only have to scooch by a couple of strangers–thus presenting your bum to the least number of people–but late enough that only a couple of people will have to scooch their bums past you. It’s a classy affair. I only had a couple moments to look around the theatre and gawk at all the other tourists before the lights went down.
Sitting immediately next to me was a gay couple. Both men were in their forties, and they seemed comfortable enough with each other for me to guess this wasn’t their first date. Just past them was the right isle, where an elderly patron of the theatre helped the stragglers rush to their seats before the lights dimmed.
The play started with energy and enthusiasm and rousing singing as it launched into the story of Jean Valjean–a prisoner who is released on probation after serving 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. He vows to make something of his life as he leaves, but soon finds it’s impossible to find work or lodging as an ex-convict. He is judged and dismissed by the brand on his chest. He’s no longer a name, but a number: 24601.
I’ve never served a prison sentence in revolutionary France–or anywhere else for that matter–but I understand what it’s like to be defined by a number instead of a name. Numbers are the way of a universe gone wrong. They’re the way legalistic religion organizes the masses, and they’re also the way governments and societies structure order out of chaos. Numbers are how you know where to stand and when to approach the lady behind the small hole in the plexiglass to turn in just another form. Numbers make sense because numbers make the world make sense. They tell you how many people “like” your vacation photos and they tell you how much your time and effort is worth when you see them rise and fall on your bank statement.
But numbers aren’t gracious. Names are.
Jean Valjean is taken in by a kindly Priest one night, but he decides to live as the thief they think he is. He steals the Priest’s silverware and escapes in the night, only to be caught by the police. They drag him back to the church and expect the Priest to press charges, thus sending Valjean back to prison–perhaps for life.
Then grace enters the theatre.
I cannot exaggerate the staggering effect of this next moment in the story. Victor Hugo not only strikes the chord of grace, but he lets its resonance ring out through the rest of the story. It’s a moment of sacred art, where the human struggle to express the divine is momentarily successful.
The Priest dismisses the charges and pretends he gave Valjean the items he stole. He says, “of course this silver was my gift. But only part! You forgot the candlesticks.”
Here’s the dangerous, beautiful thing about grace: it isn’t optional. Grace isn’t God’s preferred lane, and it’s not just mystical steroids for those who believe. Grace is the only way God acts towards the universe, because Grace is an expression of who Jesus is!
Valjean doesn’t have the option to be forgiven. He just is. He’s not only released from the charges he deserved–he’s empowered to change his life through the wealth of the Priest’s silver.
Grace will never let you remain just a number. Grace gives you a name.
As the Priest places the candlesticks into Jean Valjean’s bag, he says,
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!
Many people think grace only comes after you repent. In reality, grace is always after you–chasing you and bounding after you and toppling over you–regardless of whether or not you repent. In fact, unless grace acts this way, it’s impossible for you to change.
The Priest has given to Valjean a scary, powerful kind of grace. Grace is a love which has claimed him, and will now haunt him with an inner warmth for the rest of his life. This grace not only forgives you and empowers you in your present–it also funnels your future into greater encounters with love. Valjean, for the rest of the play, finds it impossible not to redeem the troubled lives of everyone around him: he’s not obligated by religious duty. He’s compelled to apprehend others with the love which apprehended him!
What would it be like if we gave grace to people before they deserved it, and regardless of whether or not they asked for it, with the full anticipation that what we were doing was setting them for a head-on collision with the Love that formed the universe? What if we had confidence that our generosity and forgiveness was buying the souls of unworthy people who have forgotten their name and returned to a number? What if, instead of trying to define who is “in” and who is “out”, we just let the sun shine and the rain fall–on both the righteous and the unrighteous?
Here’s the scariest thing about grace: it removes all our judgements. It curses our attempts to lessen the standard of our love. We can’t exclude any longer, because the same gift that upended our lives must be unleashed on everyone else without discrimination! The same God who forgave us *while we were killing Him*, who loves us with an everlasting love, makes us rich enough to do the same.
Grace means everyone belongs.
Grace is how the torrents of God’s love redefine the universe. The world around you might be stuck counting numbers, but you have a name. And in the midst of your destructive tendencies, God is ready to give you His silver candlesticks–knowing He’s destroying any possibility of you settling for a lesser kind of love.
The play ends with the end of Valjean’s life. His last words are a summary of the profound effect grace has had on his identity. He says,
“To love another person
Is to see the face of God!”
At this, I was a weepy mess. I looked over to see the gay couple beside me was in tears, too. We all were! It struck us all the same way. This is how grace transforms us all. God’s light shines in city squares and in ordinary theatres. His love captivates the hearts of everyone who bears witness to grace. It might be scary to realize the love and mercy of God do not discriminate. But eventually, we can rest in the extraordinary way grace upends everything.