“It is sometimes inadvertently that a revolution takes place. An effect of extreme gentleness, barely different from other moments, and then life suddenly catches fire, is ablaze. But burning with inexplicable gentleness. As if suddenly you were taken by the hand along a precipice and needed not only to walk along the edge but to dance, and yes, you dance without fear or vertigo as if the very space took refuge in you, and then as if, upon arriving on the other side, everything had changed, but without violence. Is the intimate revolution of this kind?”
She then goes on to tell a short story of a young Italian soldier. It is a story of surprising ordinariness, “barely different from other moments”, yet I find myself reading and re-reading it with a growing sense of wonder. With each reading it “suddenly catches fire” and the “surprise holds” me.
A young Italian was drafted into the army during the First World War. For months he hid in the mountains with his comrades. They had almost no provisions left. The order was to defend the mountain pass at any cost. Feeling a sense of absurdity that he tried to hide from the others, he kept a journal. One night he noticed the movement of troops in the pass on the other side of the cliffs separating the narrow valley, and he thought that all was lost. The offensive would occur the very next day, that much was certain, and he knew he and his comrades would not have enough ammunition. That night, without his comrades knowing, he decided to venture as close as possible to the enemy camp. Halfway there he almost turned back; he heard a song rising from a gramophone. The surprise held him. He was so moved by it that he decided to come forward until he was seen in the open, a sign of surrender in his hand. He was captured immediately and brought to the officer of the German army. The record was still playing. They both knew the tune. The voice that rose from the recording had an unusual gentleness. The German officer talked with this man all night. Risking everything, the Italian explained the position of his troops, their certain death, and put their fate completely in his hands. The German officer let him leave in the morning. And he never launched the attack. He went in the direction of another valley, leaving them time to withdraw and make their escape. This is a story of gentleness.
This story involves no less wonder than sipping wine from a water-filled-cup and no less surprise than the Creator of the cosmos “contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man” (Charles Wesley).
The epicentre of the story’s surprising wonder lies deep beneath the surface of expectation. “Their certain death” escapes certainty. The story’s surprise rests in what does not happen rather than what does happen just like a tree spared from the woodcutters axe. The tree stands today as it did yesterday. Nothing has changed and yet everything is different. The tree, though rooted in the same soil is now rooted in a new story. The story of what could have been, but wasn’t. The tree, though not dead, inherits the wonder of new life.
So it is with the soldiers. Though not dead, they too inherit new life. This new life is birthed out of a gentle revolution. A gentle revolution that involves radical risk taking, courageous vulnerability and musical invitation that travels over enemy lines and creeps beneath ideological uniforms to build a bridge between enemy hearts.
I share this story of gentle revolution with you at this time in the hope that it can help us to see the Christmas story as one of gentle revolution that catches fire precisely because of its surprising ordinariness: A peasant girl giving birth to a baby in poverty, yet held by the musical invitation of God’s loving favour.
In growing wonder,