“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
It’s perhaps the most famous line from the musical, Les Miserables, a production which is not only my favorite Broadway musical, but the last thing that I would see performed in a theater before the world shut down. What a gift it was to have the words, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise,” sung to my already weary heart as my parting gift from live theater.
As we continue our journey to Bethlehem this Advent, I want to take a closer look at the line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” In my opinion, it’s not the most profound phrase to ever be written. We know that whatever we do to the least of the brethren, we do to Jesus. We know that God is love. We know that it’s good and lovely and appropriately sappy for Broadway to speak about falling in love with other people.
But what strikes me about the line is WHO sings it. That final phrase is shared by three characters: Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine. Valjean is the protagonist of the story. He owes his entire life to the love given by a priest and he spends the rest of the musical laying down his life for others. Fantine loves her daughter even unto her own shame and death. But Eponine? Why does the character with perhaps the most miserable story in Les Miserables have the privilege of singing this line? Eponine is a girl born to abusive parents and is little better than a street urchin. She’s in love with a longtime friend who falls head over heels for a girl he sees walking down the street once. This guy can’t even recognize the affection Eponine has for him until she sacrifices her life to protect him in a revolt and dies in his arms.
I look at Eponine and when I get past her beautiful, fun songs that I belt with the help of our dining room’s acoustics, my eyes can’t help but widen as I say, “What a waste.” What a sad, disappointing life and character.
And yet, out of all the numerous characters in the musical, Eponine is chosen to sing, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It is Eponine’s love that is revered and memorialized in song. Hers is an unrequited, rejected love that yearns for what can never be fulfilled. Her love ends in abject failure as she takes her dying breath in the arms of a man who does not have a way to satisfy her. But in this failed, foolish love, we are told that Eponine, whether or not she knew it, saw the face of God. Love is the willing of the good of another. It finds its perfection in the laying down of one’s life, something which Eponine did in her daily life and in her final act at the barricade. Even though it was not reciprocated, even though it ended in disaster and tragedy, her love was real. Although that love was not the cozy Hallmark love we all prefer, it was that true love that conformed her to the image of her Creator. Sometimes, to love well is to fail.
Here we are in Advent, which already feels like a season of failure without the added stress of a pandemic. It’s such a gift to have so many resources at our fingertips to observe Advent well. But it can be so easy to see the beautiful devotional journals, Jesse trees, and novenas and believe the lie of the Enemy that you aren’t doing Advent right. Surely there’s something more or different you could be doing, surely your family should be happier, surely there should be more peace in your heart at this sacred time. Every Advent, my rosy, Instagram-inspired dreams for this liturgical season are forced to confront the bag-eyed, disheveled coffee troll who struggles to make it out of the door on time, let alone with time for peaceful contemplation of the babe in the manger. Just yesterday, my prayer was, “Jesus, I feel like a failure.”
Maybe you are failing. Maybe it’s not just Advent either. Maybe you think you’ve failed in discernment. Maybe you think you’ve failed in a relationship. Maybe it’s not just a “Maybe,” but a “definitely” as you see your grades for finals. But failure requires a finite end that is left unaccomplished. For God’s infinite mind and mercy, nothing, not even death on a cross, is an ultimate failure. Edith Stein writes, “We should also be convinced that, in the divine economy of salvation, no sincere effort remains fruitless even when human eyes can see nothing but failures.”2
You see failure in the Jesse tree left unassembled. You see failure in your prayer that was scattered and anxious, no matter how hard you tried to still your heart. You see failure in being single for yet another Christmas or in the wake of a slammed door. But the Lord sees the love which you pour out to your kids who you were running across the city, thus leaving you without time for Pinterest-perfect devotionals. He sees the love in your earnest striving to know Him intimately in prayer, even though mental illness leaves you terrified of silence. He sees the love that overflowed in your heart for the one who never loved you in the same way. He sees your love for Himself that led you to be open to His Will, even if His Will turned out to be quite different from your own expectations.
Edith Stein also writes, “All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love.” Rest assured that no matter how great or humiliating your failure, if you have loved another person, you have seen the face of God. If you press on this Advent with the same zeal to love, no matter how messy that love is, you will arrive at the manger in a few weeks, able to honestly exclaim the other words of Eponine, “You’re here – that’s all I need to know.” Even though Eponine’s love was not reciprocated, Christ is the lover who reciprocates beyond our wildest imagining. He will keep you safe, He will keep you close. His scarred hand makes the flowers grow.
1 “Spirituality of the Christian Woman”