Sunday, February 19, 2012
A crowd has gathered in Bobbio Pellice's square. We hurry after dinner to join them, and begin a torch-lit procession up the mountain to the bonfire.
After a walk of perhaps 20 minutes, I find myself alone in the crowd, unable to see any of my companions until the bonfire is completely ablaze, and I can find a familiar face. Not that I need to. I am lost in the wonder of a children's chorale beginning to sing ancient hymns in pristine voices, our feet all in the snow ruts a tractor has formed earlier in the day, after having pulled bales of hay, sticks and evergreen to build the bonfire.
Here we are under the sparks and weight of history, celebrating Religious Freedom Day. In 1848, after many centuries of harsh persecution, the Waldensians acquired legal freedom, and the news quickly spread up the valley by bonfire. (You can read more here if you scroll down through the article.) And so the tradition has continued since then.
Just then part of the bonfire--which stands perhaps 20 feet high--collapses a bit, showering sparks and cinders at the feet of those closest to it, who jump back with squeals of fear and delight. I move over to where Cheryl is standing, staring straight up to watch the sparks fly.
Cameras are everywhere, some on tripods. Another section of the pyre topples and the cameras click and flash all around it. Children are climbing up and rolling down the mountain in complete glee, right into the kneecaps of the adults circling the bonfire.
We join in the singing when we recognize a hymn, or talk to one another, or take pictures, or stand in mute reflection. We catch sight of other bonfires below, above, alongside--and the wide, yawning miracle of history: how is it our students arrived in Italy on the day of Religious Freedom, as celebrations began up and down the valley, bonfires illuminating the night sky, commemorating the day freedom was proclaimed here? How is it that in all our planning for the school to begin this February, we missed the fact that we would begin on this holiday?
The pyre is fully ablaze now, the heat white-hot, driving us further back, into the children climbing and rolling, into the dogs barking.
Someone announces that there is a bucket of mulled wine under a tree and we make our way past the chorale, past the fire spitting sparks up into the dark to join their cousins, the stars, as we join our far brethren the Waldensians. It was a night of wonder and delight, typically European.
We're all here--those of our students who arrived in time to join the procession, or at least the celebration--drinking our mulled wine, staring at the fire, right on time. Right where we belong, I think, although I have no idea why any of us foreigners should be here in such personal, communal history as the Waldensians are sharing. What right do I have? I have no idea, except that I was invited by the One who has not forgotten one martyr's death, and who apparently has some plans for us to pick up the legacy where it was lost.
We have come in time for history, but now the celebration is drawing to a close, and we make our way down the mountain in the pitch black (why did I forget my flashlight?!), through the piazza and into Forterocca, where we meet the last group of arriving students. Tomorrow is the holiday, but not for us. Tomorrow we pick up another torch: training the next wave of missionaries to bring the gospel into this part of Italy and beyond.
Posted by Pat Butler at 12:13 PM