The Light Festival









The air on the window pane was chilly, almost biting, as Jean-Michel bent over to light the candle in the window of his fourth floor apartment.  He imagined most of his neighbors in the apartment building doing the same thing.  In fact, he imagined most of the one million people who lived in his city of Lyon, France lighting candles in their windows.  After all, it was December 8th, the Festival of Lights, renown throughout France.
For most of his ten years, he recalled hearing the story of how the Festival of Lights came to be.  It was because of the Virgin Mary.  People in the church had vowed to build a cathedral in her honor if she would protect their city from the Plague in the 17th century and then from invasion by an enemy in the 19th century.  She had, and the church had been built, complete with a statue of the blessed Virgin on the top.  The inauguration of the statue in 1850 was to be held in September, but had to be postponed until the 8th of December because the Saône River flooded. The city folk placed small candles along their window-sills to commemorate Mary on the inauguration day and so the celebrations had continued ever since.
He knew the story by heart, and, he thought to himself, staring out the window to where that same Saône River flowed swiftly by below, perhaps she would escape her banks again.  Now that would be exciting!  Five days of straight rain, once even a few snow flurries, had swollen the Saône River and the neighboring Rhône River on the other side of Lyon, well past capacity.
“If the river rises another centimeter, the city will have to cancel the celebrations—too dangerous,” his mother, always pessimistic, had predicted.
But then the rain had stopped, and now, as Jean-Michel peered out the window, what he saw was no longer unending drops of rain, but rather the shimmer of thousands of candles being reflected on the river’s surface.  And far up on the hill, he knew that the Fourvière Cathedral was ablaze in lights while a huge neon sign beside the cathedral flashed out the words Merci, Marie for all the city to see.
I hope the Virgin Mary is happy, he thought to himself.  I hope she is very happy.  Then maybe she will answer Maman’s prayers.  Maybe this year…
Jean-Michel liked the Festival of Lights; he liked 
feeling his mother’s strong hand clutching his as they 
were pushed forward through the throngs of people.  
He remembered one year the crowds had been so thick 
that they could not move.  They had had no choice but 
to be swept along in the mass of people.  He had felt a 
moment of panic, squeezed his mother’s hand and 
looked up to see her brightly painted smile.  Always that 
same red smile that flashed almost as brightly as the neon 
sign.  The smile never wavered, even when the Virgin 
Mary did not answer her prayers.  How his mother could 
be pessimistic and at the same time wear that stiff smile 
did not quite make sense to Jean-Michel.  But he never 
questioned his mother.  She was all he had.  They had each other.
“Is it time to leave, Maman?” he inquired, coming back into the kitchen, where his mother was finishing washing the dishes.
“Almost.  Don’t be in such a hurry, Jean-Mi.  Help me dry the plates and then get your coat and mittens and scarf.  Don’t forget your scarf.  And the hat.  If it takes a mind to rain again, I guarantee it’ll be white before it touches the ground.”
Maman closed the old door and locked it.  They descended the narrow stone staircase which wound itself in a spiral.  Maman said they were lucky to live here, in the middle of the city in an apartment which had been around ever since Napoleon had decided to take over the world.  Jean-Michel liked the high ceilings and the long climb up the four floors of winding stone staircase.  But he didn’t much like the frigid air that blew right through the windows as if there was no glass on them at all.  
Their neighbor, Monsieur Lepine, had once commented that the glass had survived the plague and two world wars and a lot else and that it was pretty nearly worn out.  So at night, Maman covered the windows with thick quilts.  Tonight they descended the staircase and as always, let themselves out through the traboule.  Jean-Michel had invented a hundred different stories of the traboules—how he would escape from the bullies in the next apartment building by hiding in these narrow covered passageways that led from one street to the next.  The traboules were very famous in Lyon, dating back to the 14th century when the city first became a major exporting center for silk. 
He also imagined himself sneaking up on the high hill to where Fourvière Cathedral stood in its glory.  He thought of climbing up on the lone statue of the Virgin and whispering in her ear, “Can’t you please answer Maman’s prayers this year?  She always goes to Mass at Christmas, she prays with the rosary, she gives her money—what little there is.  So can’t you please answer this one prayer of hers?  Surely it will not be hard for you if you could stop the plague from coming to the city and the armies from invading two hundred years later.”  
Then of course he would run down the steep hill from the cathedral, run through the gardens until he reached another church—Saint Jean’s Cathedral at the bottom of the hill.  If the police came after him—for whispering in the Virgin’s ear—he would run down the cobbled street beside the church and duck into an innocuous doorway which, in fact, was a traboule.  But the police would think they were merely entering into another apartment complex, when he was long gone out the other side and hiding on a street two blocks away.
“Jean-Mi, do quit daydreaming.  Pull the scarf around your neck and let’s be gone.”
They emerged from the stone structure into the street and the biting chill hit him full in the face.  He was glad he had brought the scarf and pulled it up over his chin.  His heart felt a little thrill.  People everywhere, the smell of chestnuts being roasted in an old barrel, a vendor holding out a rolled up newspaper filled with the blackened nuts to a woman who handed him a few cents.  Another man selling crepes and hot chocolate.  And others calling out “Vin chaud!”  The hot mulled wine warmed the body and made the people smile.  Lights everywhere.  People laughing, people happy even if Mary didn’t answer their prayers.  Tonight it was a celebration.
He held tightly to his mother’s hand as she led him through the crowds on her spiked heels, never once faltering on the cobbled stones.  Jean-Michel secretly wished his mother would not wear the spiked heels and the short skirts and tight blouses that made men stop and stare.  He wished she would not wear the bright red coat that everybody noticed and that she would not paint her face so that she looked almost like a doll with eyes stuck open and lips as red as her coat.  Walking with her through town was always an adventure, her laughing and batting her eyes and calling out angry words if the men became too suggestive.  
Maman thought Jean-Michel didn’t notice at all.  But he was ten, and he had understood for several years now.  Maman was looking for something or someone.  That was why she dressed as she did and why she prayed to the Virgin Mary.  For many years Jean-Michel had tried to figure out exactly what his mother said to the Virgin, and once he had gotten up the courage to ask her.  But she had merely quipped, “You’ll see, Jean-Mi.  Someday the Blessed Virgin will answer my prayers and things will be different.”
He had tried to guess what those prayers were.  At first he was sure she was praying that his father would return.  As a small boy, he convinced himself that this was it.  But he had visited his father’s grave too many times with his mother now, laid too many cheap bouquets of flowers on the stone, to believe his father could somehow magically reappear.
If she was not praying for his father’s resurrection, perhaps it was for a new father to come, a man who would work hard and love them both so that Maman could rest a little and stop dressing in a way to attract every man’s eyes.
Or maybe she was praying to win the lottery.  Many people bought the Loto ticket every week, sure the next time their number would be chosen.  Maman bought the Loto ticket every Saturday.
Finally Jean-Michel had admitted that he could not really guess his mother’s prayers and then he had admitted deep down inside that he didn’t much believe in prayer anyway.  As far as he could tell, not a one had been answered in all these long years.

Catherine Anderson set baby Timothy in the crib, thankful that he was at last sleeping.  She walked to the window and gazed out on the city below, the streets filling up with enthusiastic people ready for celebration.  The Festival of Lights.  Again.  She sighed, closed her eyes and said a brief prayer for her husband, Steve.  She could well imagine him right now, setting up the book table on the Rue de la Republic, with little Jessica, 7, and Luke 10, helping him.  Reluctantly, she thought to herself.  These days, Luke seemed reluctant about everything.
It was their seventh year in Lyon, their seventh year of ministering in the little Protestant church tucked on a street between the Rhône and Saône Rivers.  Their seventh year, she thought to herself with a taste of bitterness in her mouth, of working hard.  For what?  Steve was still filled with enthusiasm for the members of his small congregation, still filled with energy and expectations.  At least on the outside.  But she could see the light dimming in his clear blue eyes.  She could read the disappointment there.  And it scared her.  
Disappointment, she was used to.  She had felt it creeping up on her for the past three years.  Missionaries.  Missionaries in France.  Of course, they did not call themselves missionaries.  Steve was a pastor.  But their goal in life was to reach out with God’s love to the French people.  Their desire was to help strengthen struggling French churches, training up leaders and letting them take over.  
Only it took so long.  Fifteen long years in France.  First in the south, then in the north and now in Lyon.  And so few results.  So very few.
She sighed, brushed the baby’s cheek and was overcome with the emotion of what another young mother must have felt so long ago when she considered her miraculous infant.  “Mary, were you afraid?  Overwhelmed?  Disappointed?  Discouraged?”  Yes, she must have known each of these emotions as she watched her young son grow into a man and move into a life of hurt and misunderstanding.  A radical life.
The giver of life!  The Lord Jesus Himself.  Maybe Mary had wondered if it was worth it, all the heartache and uncertainty.  Surely she had.  She could not see ahead, could not know what Jesus would become, would have had to trust solely in God’s promise and believe.
And now, two thousand years later, could Mary look down from heaven and see what had happened?  Did she weep when the throngs worshipped her instead of Him?  
The Bible lay open on the kitchen table to Luke 2 as she had a custom of doing during the month of December.  “Dear Jesus,” Catherine prayed silently.  “Encourage Steve, somehow, encourage him this season.  Thank you for our little Timothy.  Thank you.  Forgive me for the disappointment and resentment that well up sometimes.  I am homesick, and I am wondering if any of this is worth it.  Forgive me.”  
Catherine rested her forehead on the chilly window and continued to pray…

It was happening again.  Maman was talking with the men in front of the bar, commenting on the canopy of lights above them.  Somehow she always managed to get a drink for free.  Tonight Jean-Michel was thankful that one man had offered him a hot chocolate, as he stood trembling with cold beside his mother.  With the warm drink in his hands, he left his mother’s side, telling her, “I’m going over to look at the books.”  
Over to the side of the square, a tall thin man with bright eyes and a graying beard was stomping his feet and blowing on his hands from behind a long table that was filled with books.
“Bonjour, Monsieur.” Jean-Michel said.  “You look cold.”
The man laughed.  “I am cold.  I’ve just sent my children to get me a hot chocolate like you have.”
‘It’s good.  You won’t be disappointed.”
“Are you at the Light Festival alone?”
“Oh, no.  Maman is over there.”  He nodded her way.  “She’s talking with the men.  I got bored.  What kind of books are you selling, Monsieur?”
“I’m not selling any books.  These are free.  Bibles.  We have several kinds.  Here is one for children, with pictures.  And this little book tells the story of Jesus’ birth.  Would you care to look at one?”
Jean-Michel nodded, trying not to look too eager as he picked up a small paperback book, obviously meant for a little child.  As the man said, the story was about baby Jesus and His birth in a manger.  After reading the short book, Jean-Michel leaned over the table and confided, “I’ve heard the story of Jesus being born.  But the Virgin has not yet answered my mother’s prayers.  She has prayed to the Blessed Virgin for five years and still no answer.  I don’t believe in the story anymore.”
The man’s blue eyes grew intense as he said, “Dear son, you don’t need to ask Mary.  She’s not the one who can answer.  Go straight to Jesus—just as it says in the Bible.  Go straight to Him with all your needs, your questions, your hurts.  He knows you, loves you, understands…”
Then, while his mother laughed with the men, glancing every few minutes his way, Jean-Michel listened, wide-eyed, as the man told him the story of Christmas.  When his mother was finally ready to leave, Jean-Michel had tucked a copy of the Bible inside his coat along with a bright green slip of paper.  “A special invitation for you,” the man had said, a smile on his face.  “But you must get permission from your mother.”
Jean-Michel thought about the man’s words all night long, while he lay in bed, tucked under four quilts.  Could it possibly be true?  Could it be that Maman had been praying to the wrong person all these years?  Was that why the prayers were never answered?  Perhaps he could ask Maman tomorrow.  
No, no he could not.  She would shake her head and tell him never to listen to strangers, that many strange people wandered the streets of Lyon during the Light Festival.
But what if the man was right?  He gently shoved the little Bible under his pillow and whispered his very first spontaneous prayer.  “Excuse me, Jesus, for bothering you.  I, um, thought we weren’t ‘spose to bother you but talk to your mother.  Then if she thought it was important enough, she’d address you.  But what I’m trying to say is this.  Would you please answer Maman’s prayers?  If you are God, you already know what they are and how very, very small they must seem to you.  But you must also know how very, very big they are to Maman.  So could you answer them, please?  And could you let me talk to that man at the book table again without Maman getting worried?  Maybe he knows something.  Bye, now.”  
Before he drifted off to sleep, Jean-Michel reached under his pillow, took the bright green sheet from inside the Bible and read the words for the third time.  Children’s Christmas Club.  Discover the true meaning of Christmas, make a Christmas gift for your parents and enjoy cookies and hot chocolate at the end.  Saturday, December 14, 16H00, the Protestant Evangelical Church on 23 rue Régaud.

“How’d it go tonight, honey?” Catherine asked, planting a soft kiss on her husband’s forehead.  Jessica and Luke were finally tucked in bed, after she had spent an hour warming their frozen hands and reading from their Christmas books.
“Fine, dear.  It’s the same each year—a few Muslim youth get a bit rough, the French boys pick up the free Bibles and laugh.  I find tracts streamed along the street.  But we handed out a number of invitations to the Christmas party and a few people took Bibles.”
And, as every year, they held hands and prayed for those who had received God’s Word.  They prayed that these people would open that holy book and read about hope in Jesus.

Jean-Michel waited impatiently as his mother painted her face and put on her pointy shoes and brushed her long black hair.  She reached for the red coat and was finally ready.  He didn’t want to rush her or make her mad.  She had agreed to take him to the Christmas party at the church!
“We’ll see what it’s like,” she warned.  “I won’t leave you with a bunch of strangers.  You never know what they might want.”
They rode the metro to the Place Bellecour and walked onto the pedestrian road known as Rue de la Republique.  Above them, brilliant arches of lights flickered the whole length of the long road.  After a while, they arrived at rue Régaud and turned onto the tiny road, Jean-Michel eagerly searching for the number 23.  They came to a building with a window covering the entire first floor.  Christmas lights were strung around the door, and on the shelves behind the window were books and a pretty nativity scene.  A small sign proclaimed “Evangelical Protestant Church of Lyon.”
His mother hesitated, frowning.  But before she could turn away, he pushed open the door and stepped inside, practically dragging her with him.  The tall, thin man from the other night was there to greet him.  
“Well, young man, welcome!  Jean-Michel, I believe, is it not?” 
“How did you remember my name?”
“I’ve been praying for you—and your mother, just as you asked me.  I haven’t forgotten.”
Jean-Michel blushed and said, “This is my mother.”
The man held out his hand.  “Steve Anderson.  Pleased to meet you, Madame…”
“Madame Fournier,” his mother said, batting her eyes.  Jean-Michel wished she would not do that.  He was sure that this man was not interested in making jokes with her.
“Well, Madame Fournier, thank you for allowing Jean-Michel to attend our party.  If you’d like, there’s a table with some coffee and hot chocolate to help you warm up.  Later we’ll be serving Christmas cookies.”
“This doesn’t look like a church,” Jean-Michel’s mother said, looking around nervously.
The man laughed good-naturedly.  “No, it’s nothing like Fourvière or Saint Jean, that’s for sure.  But it is a church.  It’s where a group of people who want to worship the Christ come on Sundays.  And we have other activities during the week.”
“How long will this party last?”
“An hour and a half.  If you have errands to run, Jean-Michel will be safe here with us.  But if you prefer to stay, my wife is over there, and she’d be glad to get you a chair…”
Jean-Michel had to agree with his mother.  This room certainly didn’t look like any church he had ever visited.  There were no high ceilings or stained glassed windows, no statues, no gold mosaics, no impressive organ.  It was just a room.  And yet something about it was warm and inviting.  The walls were painted a soft cream color and they were covered with posters of pretty flowers and sheep and beautiful sunsets.  And on every poster there were words written.  He stood in front of one of a lighthouse shining by a tempestuous sea and read, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.  I will trust in Him and not be afraid.”
“Those are Bible verses.  Promises that God gives us in His holy book,” commented Monsieur Anderson.  “Jean-Michel, perhaps you’d like to meet the other children.”
Ten or fifteen children were already seated in chairs over by an electric piano.  Some were no more than four or five, a few a little older.  One boy look to be about his age, but he was frowning and didn’t seem very happy to be there.  “This is my son, Luke,” Monsieur Anderson said, smiling at the frowning boy.
“B’jour,” the boy replied without enthusiasm.  
“Hi, I’m Jean-Michel…” 

Catherine watched as Steve talked to the boy and his mother.  One look at the woman and Catherine felt she knew her life.  Seeing her standing awkwardly in the middle of the room with her tight clothes and heavy make-up, Catherine felt incredible sadness.  She felt she could have written this woman’s story by heart without ever meeting her.  So many of the stories were the same.  People searching for something, someone.  Always searching.  And that desperate, plastic smile painted on the face…
She went over to where the woman stood, batting her eyes at Steve.  Steve’s eyes were bright and happy.  “Catherine, I want you to meet Madame Fournier.  Her son, Jean-Michel, is over there talking to Luke.”  Catherine knew immediately why Steve was smiling.  He had met this boy the other night at the Light Festival.  They had prayed for Jean-Michel, whose mother had asked the Virgin Mary for answers and had never received them.
“Please to meet you, Madame Fournier.  Let me get you a cup of coffee.”
“I have errands…” she said too quickly, her young face, hard, suspicious.
“Oh, well, you’re free to go.  Your son will be fine with us.  He’ll be here waiting for you when you come back.”  But the woman was staring intently at the large wooden cross hanging on the wall behind Catherine.  It was a replica of the cross that had been created for the Huguenots, the first French Protestants, back in the 17th century.  Madame Fournier seemed drawn to it.
“Or if you have time to stay, I could use help preparing the cookies.  Whatever you wish.”  Just then, baby Timothy began to cry from where he was in his stroller.  Little Jessica ran over to him.  
“I’ll take care of him, Maman,” she said.
“No, dear.  You stay with your friends.  I don’t want you to miss the story.  Thank you, though.”
As Catherine bent down to lift the baby from the stroller, Madame Fournier said, “I could hold your baby, if you wish.  If that would help you?”  Catherine looked back at her, surprised.  “I used to work at a crêche,” she added.  “I’m used to babies.”
The matter of trust hung between them and Catherine took it.  “Why thank you, Madame Fournier,” and handed Timothy to her.
“Call me Elise.”

Jean-Michel listened to every word Monsieur Anderson said.  Though the story was meant for younger children, he liked it.  At one point, Monsieur Anderson took a large wooden cross from off of the wall and he told the children about how the baby born in the manger on Christmas Day was also the Savior of the world, the one who died on a cross to save every person from all the bad things he had done.  “Jesus came into the world for us, because God loved us so much.  And He died for us on a cross so we wouldn’t have to receive the punishment for all the bad things we’d done.  But children,” and here, Monsieur Anderson bent down, blue eyes again intense, “Jesus did not stay on that cross.  He died and rose again by God’s power!  For us.  Jesus is alive and He loves each one of you and wants you to know Him…”  When Monsieur Anderson said the part about Jesus not staying on the cross, Jean-Michel heard a small gasp at the back of the room, and turned around to see his mother covering her mouth with one hand while she held a baby in her other arm.
Luke, who had decided to sit by Jean-Michel, frowned at him and whispered, “Listen to the story!” Jean-Michel gave him a cross look and whispered back, “I am listening.”  But for the rest of the story, all he was thinking about was how his mother had had such a surprised and almost frightened expression on her face, and he wondered why.


“So your husband is a pastor?  I suppose that isn’t exactly like a priest then, seeing that you are married and have children.”  Elise reddened.
Catherine laughed, surprised at the ease with which she was talking to this woman.  “Oh, no, not exactly like a priest.  In the Protestant Church the pastors can marry and have families.”
“That’s better.  I’ve known some priests and well, they found it hard to—um, keep their vows…”  She reddened again.  “But we’re Catholics, Jean-Michel and me.  Both have been baptized in the church.  We do our best.  Born Catholic and we’ll die Catholic. I’ve never met a Protestant before.”  The suspicious tone was back in Elise’s voice.
“Oh, Elise,” Catherine said, trying to make her voice sound light.  “We don’t bite!  Isn’t it sad how so often we let labels separate us!  Anyway, we’re glad you stopped by with your son.  How old is he?”
“Ten.”
“Yes, the same age as my Luke.  He’s the grouchy-looking kid sitting by your son.”  She sighed.  “Your son seems a little less insolent right now.”
Elise’s face brightened as they began to talk about their children in whispers.  But Catherine wanted her to hear the story.  Finding an excuse, she left the room, going into the kitchen to retrieve a plate of homemade Christmas cookies.  As she came back out into the main room, Catherine noticed that Elise was listening intently to what Steve was saying to the children.  When her husband brought out the wooden cross and began to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Elise let out a gasp.
“That cross!” she whispered excitedly to Catherine.  “It’s the cross!  The one Michel told me about.”
Catherine waited to see if Elise wanted to explain, but she only moved closer to the group of children.  She stood almost transfixed for at least ten minutes.  When Steve had finished his story of how the baby in the manger was also the Savior of the world, Elise turned back to Catherine and her eyes were filled with tears.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, handing sleeping Timothy to his mother.  “But this is the answer to my prayers.  To five years of prayers!  It is here, right here.  This is what Michel was talking about.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Michel was Jean-Michel’s father.  We weren’t married, but he was good to me, to us.  Brought us food and helped pay our rent and took little Jean-Michel places.
“Then he grew ill.  Very ill.”  Her eyes told the rest of the story.  “But he met some kind people in the hospital and when I’d go to visit him, he would talk about them.  He kept telling me to find the place where Jesus was not hanging on the cross.  Where He was alive.  He told me to find the cross with the dove. I didn’t know what Michel was talking about—he was often delirious at the end—but for the past five years I’ve lighted a candle for him every Christmas and I’ve prayed to the Virgin—especially on the 8th of December—to help me understand what Michel meant.  To help me find the cross he was talking of.  And here it is!”

Jean-Michel could not quite believe what his mother was saying, as she held his hand firmly and gesticulated with the other, tears running down her cheeks.  “This is what your papa was telling me to find!  He wanted me to find this Jesus!  See, Jean-Michel, you’ve found the secret.  The Virgin Marie had answered my prayers through you, my son!”
“Oh, no, Maman.  It wasn’t Marie.  I prayed to Jesus.  I asked Him to answer your prayers and to let me talk to the man at the book table again.  He answered both of our prayers.”
They stayed at the funny little church for over an hour after the other children had left, but Jean-Michel didn’t mind.  In fact, he was overjoyed to see the brightness in his mother’s eyes as she talked in quiet excited tones to Monsieur and Madame Anderson.  If only Luke were friendlier everything would have been perfect.  But the boy just eyed Jean-Michel warily.
“Do you like to play soccer?” Jean-Michel asked him, trying to start up a conversation.
“Not really,” he replied.
“Do you play any sports?”
He shrugged, “Yeah, I play baseball.  You ever heard of it?”
“Sure, I’ve heard of baseball.  We played a little at school last year.  Of course, it wasn’t the real thing, but I thought it seemed like a cool sport.  What position do you play?”
It wasn’t a real conversation, but it was better than nothing.  When his mother was getting ready to leave, Madame Anderson said, “We have a Christmas Eve service here at five in the afternoon.  Then those who want are invited to come to our house for the Christmas meal.  Everyone brings his favorite dish and we put them all on a table and share.  You and Jean-Michel would be welcome.”
Jean-Michel saw the interest in his mother’s eyes—and the suspicion.  Before she could answer, Madame Anderson added, “You don’t have to give me an answer.  But if you decide to come, just show up with something good to eat!”  And she laughed happily as she told them good night.

Luke was brooding in the corner as Catherine and Jessica cleaned up the cookie table and Steve straightened the chairs.  “Son, can you please sweep for me?”
Luke grunted.  “Why’d you have to invite them to dinner, Mom?  That boy is just an old racaille.  He’ll probably leave our house with his pockets full of our money.”
Catherine frowned at her son.  But she didn’t blame him really for complaining.  Several years ago a homeless man who’d come to dinner had left with several of Luke’s cherished toys and 150 euros worth of Christmas money.
She worried about the negative effect their living in the city and ministering to the ‘least of these’ was having on her son.  She went over and gave him a hug and said, “I know it’s not always easy to feel like welcoming others to our house…”
“Welcoming strangers!” he retorted.
Catherine hugged him again and silently prayed that the Lord would have a blessing in this Christmas for her son.

Elise and Jean-Michel entered the small protestant church on Christmas Eve, surprised to see it full—all fifty chairs or so.  Jean-Michel held his mother’s hand throughout the whole first part of the service.  They stood together and sang the songs that were projected on the wall.  Christmas carols.  A woman was playing the piano and a teen strumming the guitar.  People were singing loudly, happily, with serene smiles on their faces.  They looked to Jean-Michel as if they actually believed what they were singing.
Maybe one day I will believe it too, he thought, as he sang about the babe in a manger who came to save the world from sin.  And maybe Maman would believe too.  One thing was sure—she had acted happy and excited during the past week and she was the one who told him that night, “Hurry up, Jean-Michel.  We don’t want to be late!”
They shook Monsieur Anderson’s hand and he motioned to Luke to show them to their seats.  Luke greeted them with that same sullen expression on his face.  But Jean-Michel had a plan.  Later, he knew how he was going to make Luke smile.

At the end of the service, Catherine called to Luke, “Honey, I’m going to need your help at home.  Let’s go now, and Dad will walk with the others to our apartment.”  She saw her son roll his eyes, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his pants.  He started over to her when Jean-Michel came up to him.
“Hey, Luke, it was really nice of your parents to invite us to your house.  Um, I brought this for you—I hope you like it.”  Then Catherine watched as the young boy held out a wrapped gifted to her startled son.
“Well, um, thanks.  Uh, you didn’t have to bring me anything.”
“I know,” Jean-Michel said.  “But I wanted to.  Your dad said at the party it was more blessed to give than receive.  Something like that.  Go ahead and open it.”
Slowly Luke unwrapped the bulky gift and held up a worn baseball glove.  “Wow!” he said with more enthusiasm in his voice than Catherine had heard in months.  “Wow! A Rawlings!  Where’d you get this?  It’s a really nice glove.”
“My daddy used to play baseball with this nice American man, and the man gave him this glove.  But then, um, my dad died.  He left the glove for me.  But I don’t play much so when you told me what sport you liked, I thought I’d give it to you.”
Catherine could tell that Luke didn’t know what to say.  After a moment of awkward silence, he said, “But I can’t take this.  It was your dad’s.”
“Take it.  Merry Christmas.  Maybe someday you can teach me how to play…”
Catherine blinked back tears as Jean-Michel and Luke joined her on the walk back to their apartment, the two boys talking and laughing as if they were lifelong friends.
Later in the evening, as thirty guests were crammed in their small apartment, laughing and enjoying delicious food, Luke came up to his mother.  “What can I offer to Jean-Michel?  He gave me this cool glove.  I need to give him something.”
“I think Jean-Michel wanted to give you the glove.  He’s not expecting anything in return.  And you shouldn’t feel obliged.  You know how the Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver.”
“But I want to give him something, too, Mom.  Honest, I do.  He’s a pretty cool kid.  Do you think that he and his mom will ever come back to our church?”
Catherine watched as Steve patiently talked to Elise, answering all of her questions.  Catherine knew it was just the beginning, the first step toward new life for this young woman and her son.  She knew it would be long and hard, filled with ups and downs.  They had walked this path with many others before.  But she felt a deep down joy well up in her heart as she answered her son, “Oh, yes, Luke.  I think we’ll be seeing a lot of them in the future.  I think that the Lord has answered my prayers through them.”
Luke gave her a quizzical look, then shrugged and smiled.  “Hey, I know what I’ll give Jean-Michel!  I’ve got a great idea…” And he ran off toward his room.

Jean-Michel held the Lego toy in his hands, as he lay in bed, turning it over and over in his hands.  This had been their best Christmas ever.  His mother had received a Bible from the Andersons and Luke had given him a brand new Lego toy—a gift from Luke’s American grandmother.  A very expensive Lego.  “I can’t take this,” Jean-Michel had said, embarrassed.  But Luke had insisted, all the while tossing a baseball in his Rawlings glove.  That had made them both laugh.
Jean-Michel closed his eyes and whispered, “Thank you, Jesus.  For being the answer.  Thank you so very much.”  He had a smile on his lips as he fell asleep, with the wind howling outside the windows and the moon shining down on the Saône River.

~ Elizabeth Goldsmith Musser, c2004