The first time I saw Paris, I was sixteen years old. I had come there to meet a family of strangers, the Tabastes, with whom I would live for three weeks as part of a language exchange program. They met me at the airport and we piled into a funny blue car and drove off pell-mell through the boulevards, winding between buildings of honey-colored stone. They looked so much like themselves, those buildings: exactly the way they did in pictures. Finally, we came to their apartment building, in the XVieme Arrondissement, and pulled into a parking space. Then they backed up the car, and we all got out and shut the doors. Then they pushed the car into the space, empty. “My God,” I thought, “they’re crazy. I have to live with them for three weeks, and they’re utterly crazy.” It turned out, they were not. The architect had forgotten to leave space for the car doors to be opened. They were simply making the best of a tight place, of thing which was not the way it should be. They were good at that, the Tabastes.
What I remember from that summer is their warmth, their eagerness to share who they were and how they lived with a person they barely knew. How they made a big deal of my French, broken though it was at the beginning. I remember the museums and cafes, the strangers who would come speak to us. Sunshine and laughter and history and paintings and joy.
July fourteenth found us in the Perigord region, where the family had a home that went back four hundred years. We woke in the stone rooms, ate breakfast by a vast fireplace that contained not only the hearth, but two stone benches, carved into the wall, on which people could warm themselves through cold winter days. We piled into the funny car and made our way to the grounds of a local chateau, spread out a picnic blanket by the lake. There were cheeses and saucissons, bread and wine, and, as the night came down, fireworks exploded against a field of stars. At the end, we all stood, and neighbors cried out to one another, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!”
They were not empty words. They lit up the night with their promise.
They still do.
And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Sovereign Lord Christ, In a time of tyranny, you inspired the people of France to proclaim and embrace the brotherhood and equality of all humankind and made them a beacon of freedom to the world. Guard and defend them, now, from all who would extinguish their light. Comfort the bereaved; give courage to the frightened; receive the dead into the arms of your mercy. Strengthen us, O Lord, that the bitterness and rage of those who harm others may not use our anger and fear to gain a foothold in our heart. In all time of trouble, keep us faithful to one another, and faithful to you. We ask this in the name of your Son.