“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
So ends the dramatic musical “Les Miserables,” an epic tale of sin and redemption, crime and punishment, love and loss, promises made, broken and kept and the struggles that bring forth the best and worst of human nature.
I have long loved musical theater, with a soft spot for the rollicking, happy musicals that end in the burst of a joyful finale for all. Yet, I have also come to appreciate those tales whose haunting lyrics are a foray into the more complex nature of human life and experience. If anything, Les Mis is complex!
That beautiful snippet of its lyrics touched my heart when I first heard it and it often echoes through my mind. I have written it in anniversary cards for those couples whose love truly does show the face of God to those of us blessed to know them. I have slipped it into wedding toasts for loved ones, with the hope that in their vocation of love they will show the face of God to each other. It has crossed my mind during those blessedly frequent times when I have been on the receiving end of profound kindnesses when others give me a glimpse of the face of God.
Of all the things we might do in this life, it strikes me that very little can be as important as loving our neighbors not merely as ourselves, but loving our neighbors in a way that shows to them the face of God, especially when they most need to see it. Even though the best of our love is a pale shadow of the divine, it is accessibly tangible.
Lately, though, I have been wondering if the corollary is also true. If “to love another person is to see the face of God,” I have wondered whether it must also be true that when we fail to love each other, we make it harder for our sisters and brothers to see the face of God.
I have wondered this of late because I see the world in the throes of some of the most bitter divisions I have ever seen. I see the stress of an election season where more voters on all sides seem to be voting against someone instead of for someone. I feel the fearful fatigue of a tense COVID season that has lasted longer than so many expected I witness the vicious echo-chambers of social media that bring out cruel snarky diatribes from those who, in person, seem far better than that. I am saddened by the painful injustices that many suffer themselves or inflict on others. I know the disruption of routines and the way, of necessity, people have been separated from their loved ones when they need them close.
In this mix – perhaps both caused by it and escalating it – I have seen less attention paid to love in our shared civic life. Certainly, love may be reserved for those nearest and dearest – the people who we like! Indeed, as these times have removed some daily distractions, love may have had time to be renewed and deepened in close quarters.
But, I hope that it is possible to extend this to a broader love for those we do not know as well, those with whom we disagree, those who have political viewpoints different from our own, those who we envy because they have more, and those we look down on because they have less.
In a time of tension, angst, and conflict, only the most naïve would say that this is easy or that the mere absence of conflict is, itself, a healthy good. But, even in this, there is still the opportunity to show each other love. We may not love, like, accept or even respect viewpoints, arguments, or political choices made by others. Some practices and acts are now, as they have always been, objectively evil, destructive and deserving of forceful condemnation. But, that does not mean that to detest these messages must mean that there can be no trace of love for the messenger.
Recently, in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis reminded the world that, “we were made for love.” He went on to warn, “[a]l of us, as believers, need to recognize that love takes first place: love must never be put at risk, and the greatest danger lies in failing to love.”
In the days, weeks and months ahead, I hope that we will have honest conversations and disagreements about our hopes and fears for our nation and our world. I hope that we do not fear to defend the vulnerable and to speak out against what is evil.
But, if we can do this with love, we might also be able to do more than move forward with greater hope and a commitment to the good. We might also be able to do this in a way that shows to others the face of God. In the divisive days to come, I hope that we will seek out those chances for the acts of kindness that hold the world together and show the face of God in even the most contentious of ordinary times.