By Nate Burns
Growing up I was always infatuated with girls. In Kindergarten, I professed my love and undying affection for Angie Mondragon. Her pigtails and freckles sent my heart into palpitations. On Easter, I gave her a box of Peeps, because every Kindergartner knows, to show a girl you love her means you give her things. I found out she didn’t like me or the peeps. In first grade, I moved on to an older woman, a third grader. Funny her name escapes me now. In second grade, I tried to put the moves on my sister’s eighth grade friend; it did not go well for me. I embarrassed myself and was the talk of our church youth group for a while. The stories could go on, but my humiliation tolerance has a limit. There have been many times when I was giving away my professed love only to have it go unrequited. I thought my world would end. I remember one year at summer camp, probably 7th grade. I met the love of my life. Her name was Michelle. In four days, I knew I had found my soul mate. On that fateful Friday we said goodbye, and I never saw her again. I was devastated. My Youth Pastor came to my house after we got home from camp because I had been moping around the house for a week holding our camp picture. He took me to Tastee Freeze and we drowned my sorrows in a humongous banana split. My second love in life, after girls, was definitely food, and by the end of my ice cream I had forgotten all about Michelle. Unfortunately, that would not be the last case of heart ache that I would encounter.
Have you ever been there? Someone once said, “It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” But they never said how bad it hurt to lose. “I just want to be friends.” “It’s not you, it’s me.” “I’ve fallen in love with someone else.” Or, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” We all know it’s true, but we do not like to admit it. Love is a choice! We choose to fall out of love because we go looking for it in places we don’t belong! We convince ourselves that loving someone shouldn’t take hard work, it should come naturally. So we give up and go looking for someone to love without working at it. To love someone takes a lot of hard work and determination.
The word love is difficult to define in English, because we use it so frequently to describe how we feel about a plethora of things. For instance, “I love this song.” Or, “I love this cup of coffee.” “I love your shirt.” Or, “I love you.” Do you remember growing up when someone would declare their love for a particular thing? The smart remark would be, “So why don’t you marry it?” We declare our love, for a lot of things. Greek culture had four words for love, each with a distinct meaning: Phileo, which means brotherly love, deep affection (friendship); Second is Storge, which describes a natural love between a mother and child; Thirdly Eros, is where we get our word erotic, meaning sensual love that is expressed between lovers; Finally Agape, unconditional love, love demonstrated by Christ on the Cross, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NIV)
Laying down one’s life is the ultimate definition of AGAPE. For whom are you willing to die? I imagine the list to be rather short.
In continuing our series “Finding the Gospel in Les Misérables,” we are introduced to another character, Éponine Thénardier. She is the daughter of Masseur and Madame Thénardier. “When they first appear in the book (and musical) they run an inn in the town of Montfermeil. It is here where the working class girl named Fantine asked them to look after her daughter Cosette, providing that she pays them regularly. However, they treat Cosette very badly, dressing her in rags, forcing her to work, and beating her often. They spend all the money Fantine sends them on their daughter Éponine. There is a scene that opens with Madame Thénardier berating and sending Cosette out to draw water from the well. When she returns to them, Jean Valjean has come to take Cosette. (Valjean becomes her savior just like the Bishop saved him…another sermon for another time.) Valjean tells them of Fantine’s death and initially requests to take Cosette with him, but the Thénardier’s attempt to con Valjean, deceivingly claiming they love Cosette as if she was their own daughter. They have had to purchase expensive medicine to treat her for frequent illness and are worried about the treacherous people she may encounter in the outside world (“The Thénardier Waltz of Treachery”). In the end, Valjean offers 1500 francs to take Cosette, and delighted with the money, the Thénardiers hand her over without question.” (Wikipedia Les Misérables)
Later in the musical the Thénardiers return. They have lost their inn and now run a gang of robbers and thieves. Éponine is part of this gang. She also is in love with a young man named Marius. He does not see her the same way, yet at every encounter with Marius she deludes herself into believing that he could possibly love her. She has created a fantasy that only exists in her mind, where she and Marius are in love and everything is perfect. She is happy with just the thought of him. Marius is like any other guy, so oblivious to Éponine’s feelings.
Finally, Éponine and Marius are fighting for the Resistance on the Barricade, when Éponine steps in front of a gun to save Marius’ life. She is shot and lies in Marius’ arms; she tells him of her secret love (agape) and dies. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NIV)
Éponine’s tragic story, of an unrequited love is not unfamiliar is it? We have all encountered people who have loved someone and receive nothing from them in return. It is terribly sad. What I find so compelling about Éponine is she certainly did not have a parental role model for unconditional love, and yet she gave it to Marius. Somewhere along the way she learned what love should be. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a TNIV)
As people of faith, do we model this love, the agape love of Christ in our world? Éponine does. She gives her life for Marius who does not love her back. I find that to be similar to the way humanity responds to Christ. “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8 TNIV) Isn’t this the meta-narrative to the entirety of scripture, God’s passionate pursuit of prodigal people? His love is offered to everyone who will receive it, and rejected by people who do not know it, see it, or understand it. Christ willingly goes to a cross and magnifies the agape love of God for human kind.
What have you done with the agape love of Christ? Is it something that is impossible to attain or a lofty ideal? The reality of this love (agape) is that it asks us to come and die. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt. 16:23-25 TNIV) Who is on your list of people that you are willing to die for; a son or daughter, a spouse, maybe a family member? I think we even make this about ourselves too, as long as it’s heroic, I’m willing to die. What if Christ calls you to live humbly with no fanfare, and asks you to give your life away and the only recognition you will receive is after you die? Come and die, this request asks for our time, talent, treasure, dreams, and our plans for the future.
The song, “On My Own,” paints a very bleak future for Éponine. She will never know the happiness of love except in her own dreams. That is where our lyrics depart from the Gospel. The good news is the invitation of Christ is not to come and die alone. It is to come and die with Christ. “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20 NLT)
So what do we do? “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18 TNIV) We talk, live, and give all that we are to His mission. God’s love is not a secret like Éponine’s was for Marius, but His love is being lived out every day through His people.
What would it look like if we all would lay down our lives willingly for Jesus Christ? Jesus call is clear, are we willing to embrace it? What I have found over the years of this coming and dying to myself for the sake of Christ, is that I truly have found life, and it is full.