I’ve been down on the Isle of Wight this week. Apparently it made the national news – not my visit, but a huge landslide on Sunday night that took down a great chunk of cliff about a mile north-east of where my mother still lives. For me, there was little immediate impact beyond having to get a different bus, but if you take a look at some of the images online you can see how the landscape has been massively and violently changed.
Islanders know that the ground they live on is inherently unstable, the same way that we know that out here in the Fens we’re dependent on the Norfolk sea defences and a complicated seventeenth century system of drainage to keep the ground around us from flooding and returning to swamp. The wise man built his house upon the rock – but when the rock itself sits precariously above a layer of blue slipper clay, it doesn’t help all that much. It’s tempting to think of our landscapes as safe, stable, unchanging, but that’s at least partly because our own lifetimes are so short compared to geological time. Compared to God’s time. Psalm 90: a thousand years in your sight are like a watch in the night. The three and a half centuries during which Cornelius Vermuyden’s drainage project has been operational are just a blink of an eye to God.
Why was I down on the Island? Seeing my family before Christmas and doing what I can to help out with the ongoing task of sorting out my late father’s possessions before we sell his house. It’s been a challenge, to say the least: emotional, overwhelming, gruelling, sometimes plain depressing. But there have been some gems in there, some opportunities to find out more about family members I didn’t know, or hardly knew.
As part of that process I’ve read my grandmother’s memoirs, and was particularly struck by her account of having two children during the Second World War – my father in 1942, and then my aunt in 1944. My grandparents were living in Hampshire at the time, uncomfortably close to the prime targets of Southampton and Portsmouth, and on one occasion a bomb fell only a quarter of a mile away from their house. And yet her joy at having those two children – something she’d thought might never happen, as she married relatively late – shines through her words. Despite the fear and uncertainty of the world she lived in, she could hold on to hope and joy. She couldn’t know that the end of the war was three years away – then eighteen months away. Any more than my own parents could have known, when I was born, that the Berlin Wall would have come down before I went to school.
A thousand years are like a single night to God. Next to a cliff face, we feel very small, and our lifetimes something to compare to the breadth of a hand. How can we matter?
And yet at this time of year we see that God chose a very specific time and a very specific place – an unstable place, yes, in a rather different way, and entered into this world to share in our insignificance, to share in our joys and our sorrows. And to change the landscape for ever.
Sometimes change is sudden. A hundred years, a thousand years, and then in a few moments the cliff falls; in a few hours the wall is brought down. A few days, and empires fall. It’s not always pleasant, and it’s not always pretty, and you can’t always say it’s for the best. I read something else that resonated with me this year; it went something like this: While the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior was right to say that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice, he omitted to mention that you have to jump up and down on that thing.
As most of you know, I’ve had a baby this year, and I can report that what everyone says is true: it changes your world, turns it upside down. All your priorities change; the world you used to live in slips on by without you, and you don’t particularly miss it.
Mary’s baby changed the world for everybody, and she knew it. Even before she was born she was talking in terms of what God has done: fed the hungry, put down the mighty from their seat. She couldn’t see precisely how it was going to play out, what everything was going to look like when the dust has settled. Indeed, the dust still hasn’t settled. But she knew that everything had changed, that we live now in a world that God steps into.
There’s still plenty wrong with the world, and I can’t know that what it’s going to look like as my daughter grows up. But it is a world that God has come into, experienced, and redeemed, has shown us that the small, the singular, the particular, matter. It is a world in which God is with us. Emmanuel.