I must admit I knew nothing of the musical “Les Miserables” until I married Melissa—a francophone. Oh, sure, I had seen the posters for it back in the 80s with the young child superimposed on the French flag on them, but that’s it. Melissa and I were in my hometown of Detroit one year for Christmas when “Les Mis” happened to be in town, and so we made plans with some of my family members to see it on New Year’s Eve.
I can’t believe it had taken me that long to discover it. You may remember the backstory about the imprisonment of Jean Valjean due to stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery for his sister’s starving children, and after 19 years he’s released but with a marked passport labeling him as an ex-con for the rest of his life. He is unable to get any work due to his status, and he wanders around the French countryside. He happens upon a kindly bishop who takes him in one dreary evening, feeds him, and provides him a warm bed. In the middle of the night, Valjean steals the silverware, and sets out, but local authorities catch him, and bring him back to the bishop’s home. While there, the bishop shows mercy, telling the authorities that of course he had given Valjean the silver, but that Vlajean had forgotten the silver candlesticks. Putting them in his bag, the bishop tells Valjean that he must use it to become an honest man, that his soul has been purchased for God.
The musical follows Jean Valjean’s redemption as he tries to allude the inspector Javert who’s chasing him, since Valjean breaks his parole by destroying his passport. Much happens—you really should rewatch the musical, or see it if you never have—but Valjean rescues a young girl Cosette—the one depicted on the poster I saw—and raises her as his own. His demons and the guilt of his former life never truly leave him, and at his deathbed, he finally experiences complete forgiveness. The last words he utters in the musical are these: “And remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.”
I’m thinking of that powerful finale because of our reading from Exodus today. We’ve come into the lesson midstream, with God and Moses conversing with one another. It begins with God still being miffed at the Israelites over the Golden Calf incident. So God tells Moses that he and the Israelites will be going forward without God leading them—that an angel will take over those duties—because if God went with them, well, God would consume that stiff-necked people.
But Moses intercedes. He tells God that if he had indeed found favor in God’s sight, well then that should count for something. And besides, Moses continues, if that’s the case, then you should consider your people whom you delivered. Ever further, Moses tells God, if you won’t go with us, then don’t make us leave this place because then he—Moses—would look like an ineffectual leader, that he had somehow lost the support of God.
Moses is pretty clever, frankly. Here he is subtly influencing God to change God’s mind. If I’ve really found favor with you, then you have to come with us or else no one will believe me when I say that you’ve appointed me as the leader. It’ll look like I’ve fallen out of your good grace.
So God relents.
Before we get any further, can you imagine this yourself? Can you imagine arguing with God and trying to convince God to do something like this? When I interact with God, I’m much more deferential in my stance. My prayer life isn’t at all, “Hey God, I know you said that I’ve made the cut and all as a priest, so how about doing this thing for me?” Partly because that just sounds so egotistical. But what if the thing I was asking for was on behalf of someone else? Something good and needful for others? Might we pray more like Moses then? “God, I’ve had so many blessings from you in my life, could you please show others those blessings who need it? The ones who think that you’ve forgotten them, could you do something so that they could see your goodness too?” That sounds like something I could be able to do.
But then when God does say yes, Moses continues with his requests; this time it’s “Show me your glory, I pray.” As if it’s not been enough for Moses to literally tell God that a change in mind would be helpful, Moses pushes his luck—in my estimation—and says, “Lord, I want to see you in all your glorious majesty.” Talk about your chutzpah.
And God says yes again, but this time with a caveat. “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord;’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.But,” God said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And there it is, God telling Moses that you cannot look on God’s face and survive. I wonder if Jean Valjean forgot that part of scripture.
So God works it out that Moses can slide into a fissure in the rock wall, and God would move past him. And while God is doing so, God would reach out a hand to protect Moses’ eyes from seeing God’s face, and then after God has gone by—and that hand removed—Moses could get a glimpse of God’s backside. But not God’s face. That was off-limits. It would be too much for Moses to see.
That is what happens, by the way. It doesn’t get described in the text; the next thing we know is that Moses comes down the mountain and has beams of light emanating from his face, and the people ask him to cover it up because it’s disconcerting to them. Moses’ face reflects the glory of God.
But there’s just one thing left to mention. Notice the beginning of this whole scenario, when Moses asks God if he can see God’s glory. God’s response is this: “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” All the anthropomorphic stuff follows about God’s hands and face and back—we all know that God doesn’t really have those things, but it helps us relate to God by thinking God does. What passes before Moses is God’s goodness, but even then Moses can only briefly see the back of it. All that goodness was too much for old Moses. Theologian Leslie A. Klingensmith writes, “Even at the moment when God is most present, we catch only a glimpse of the wonder of God. As unsatisfying as that may seem,… if the limited experience we have of God is this astonishing, how much more wonderful will it be when God finally fully reveals God’s self to us?” She reminds us that St. Paul describes this present life as if we’re seeing things in a foggy mirror, but in the age to come we will see God face to face.
That quick glance of God’s goodness we get from time to time can be so amazingly wonderful, right, almost overwhelming. There’s no way to plan when those epiphanies of God’s grace will catch us off guard, but the tremendous joy and comfort and relief and love they bring, it’s stunning. There’s not much we can say in words to describe that rapture we feel, but we just know that in that moment of time—quick enough for us just to catch a whiff of that goodness—that all will be well.
We feel it when we our eyes meet that person we love across the terminal when they’re back from a long trip. Or that time you first caught a glimpse of your baby in Labor and Delivery. Or the look of compassion you found in the face of someone who’s stopped to help you in a dire situation. Those faces—the compassion, the love, the promise in them—well it’s like a blazing reminder that all will be well and all will be well and all manor of thing will be well, as St. Julian put it. So right now, imagine someone in your life in whose face or presence you’ve felt just that. Just remember that person you love.
If that isn’t all goodness, I don’t know what is. And so, perhaps, Jean Valjean isn’t that far off after all. Perhaps it is true that to love another person is to see the face of God.