Reading for Year 7-11 Assembly

A couple of years ago towards the end of the Michaelmas Term, I gave a short impromptu lesson in Geology to Year 11 in the Dining Hall – I was covering for an absent colleague, and somewhat exceptionally my charges had been set no work. Year 11 are occasionally a little restive. It’s not very Christmassy, I know, but I want to talk a bit more about Geology this morning – and hopefully, through an allegory, you’ll see the relevance in just a few short minute’s time.

The start of the mystery lies in research ships in the late 1950s, each with a team of geologists working aboard in these floating laboratories both south of Iceland, and also in the Pacific Ocean.

The Scientists I have in mind were looking at geo-magnetism. When igneous rocks are formed, they have a magnetic polarity set into them. Just like a red compass needle on an expedition for Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, the iron bearing minerals in the lavas line themselves up with the Earth’s magnetic field lines as they crystallise. In other words, there is a record in the rocks of which way is north; the story of the Earth’s magnetism over the past 10,000,000 years is written into the crust beneath the Arctic Ocean. But as the research ships moved away from the ridge of submarine volcanoes off Reykjanes, the geologists then found something very strange and unexpected. Alternate stripes of lava on the sea floor showed their polarity pointing south, then north, then south again. The sea floor in magnetic terms took on the appearance of a supermarket bar code. Some magnetic stripes were wide, some narrow, but the pattern was simple, pervasive and compelling. It looked as though every once in a while – on average, once every 300,000 years - the Earth’s magnetic field reverses. At that point, all compasses would point south.

Atlantic Ocean

And that’s exactly what is thought to happen. The earth has a solid nickel iron inner core of about 2000km in diameter, which rotates slightly faster than the planet itself. This is surrounded by a turbulent, liquid outer core, and the interaction of the two create the magnetic field through the process of induction. With the planet’s rotation, the magnetic pole wanders, but usually returns to its original position. Sometimes, however, the instability is so great that the entire magnetic field flips around and the polarity reverses; like a child’s spinning top, the whole system falls over. South becomes north; the way things are shifts, and the whole of nature has to take account of that new reality.

In my own lifetime, I have seen such shifts in the world of human affairs. The Iron Curtain fractures and the whole Soviet edifice collapses. Marxism from being the obvious scientific political truth of the future spins and in its place a form of market capitalism is the new reality which has to be regarded. In reaction to its pervasive and persuasive influence, traditional cultures and religions seemingly consigned to history suddenly appear in new, vibrant and sometimes violent forms and the world has to take account of that new reality. The irresistible ebb and flow of economic change pre and post 2008 has changed not just the appearance of our world, but also the value sets by which we judge what we see. Inequality grows and we have to recognise it and fight against it if we can.

A similar dynamic can occur in personal lives. We fall in love, reality shifts and spins, and when we regain our balance, we perceive the World in a completely different way. But this experience of falling in love is a but a passing hint of a much greater spiritual transformation, which occurred in human history just over 2000 years ago.

Like the maelstrom of activity in the Earth’s core, whilst on the surface all is peace and calm, the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ swirled unseen within the heart of the world, dramatically shifted reality, and humanity had a chance to encounter the world in a different way. To see a world put right. A world of justice and truth touched with the glory of heaven. A world where new life and hope weren’t only possible, but were demanded.

There is a story I read a little while ago of some people in France who had taken part in quite a difficult experiment. They volunteered to lie flat with their heads slightly below horizontal – for some weeks. The idea was to see how the human frame would cope with life in this position on a long space flight. It might just be that we tend to spend our whole lives in such cramped conditions – strapped down unnecessarily to predictable habits of the human condition, heads placed well below their capacity for thinking and perceiving, hearts restricted to the cares of our own narrow little world. With the birth of the Christ child, those worlds flipped. It was possible to stand - and live - and love. And guess what? It still is.