Christmas Eve in Space
Christmas Eve in Space
December 24, 2017
On Christmas Eve in 1968, three men were orbiting the moon. They were the three astronauts of Apollo 8, and they spent the holiday taking turns reading from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. Looking back at the Earth through the window of the spacecraft, they read the verses, “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the Earth.”
What a beautiful way to spend Christmas Eve in space.
Their reading of Genesis was broadcast live to the whole planet over radio and television. “It was one of those moments that brought the world together,” writes Eric Metaxas in The Wall Street Journal, one of those moments “that helped us to see our common humanity as children of God.” The astronauts reminded us that God loves us equally, and has placed us together on a beautiful and precious planet. They could see, from outer space, the truth that had been first discovered by the poet Dante: God is the “love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”
A few years later, one of these astronauts was suddenly very anxious to return to our beautiful planet. Named Jim Lovell, he was making a second trip to the moon as commander of Apollo 13, and his spacecraft suffered a critical failure which put the entire mission in danger. You’ve probably seen the movie Apollo 13, in which Lovell is played by Tom Hanks. It was only through the creativity and the bravery of the crew and mission control that the spacecraft was brought safely home. Lovell often speaks of how NASA, in the 1960s, was able to bring our country together in pursuit of a common goal.
The mission of the Apollo program was to take people from the Earth to the moon. But on Christmas Eve, we see that God has a mission as well — to send Jesus from heaven to Earth. This is a mission that has been in the works for a long time, and has been part of God’s plan since the beginning of time. Tonight’s Scripture reading from John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:1-4).
So what were the goals of God’s mission to Earth? First, to bring light into darkness. The light of Christ “shines in the darkness,” says John, “and the darkness did not overcome it” (v. 5). We look around the world today, and we can see a lot of darkness: Illness, grief, greed, discrimination, injustice. To drive out this darkness, Jesus brings the light of healing, comfort, and generosity. He fights discrimination by telling a parable about a Samaritan who was actually a good guy (Luke 10:25f). He battles injustice by pointing out the ways that people fail to practice justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23).
When we see darkness around us, it is easy to get discouraged. But we can always shine a light. So, speak up. Take a stand. Get involved. Jesus is “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). As followers of Jesus our job is to reflect his light into the dark corners of the world around us. “Let your light shine before others,” says Jesus to us, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). All of the darkness in the world is no match for a single point of light.
Second, God’s mission to Earth creates a new community. To all who received Jesus, says John, “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (vv. 12-13). The people who believe in the name of Jesus are part of a new community that John calls “children of God.” They are not born of human flesh and blood, but instead they are born “of God.”
Each of us who believes in Jesus is part of this community. We are meant to be a welcoming and inclusive group, one in which there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but instead people who are “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In a world that is so often divided by culture or class or gender, we are created by God to be a united Christian community. I think the our church is needed now, more than ever — we are a group that shows the world what it means to be a diverse group of people who work together for the common good. Here at FPC, whether we are doing a class on racism or working to create affordable housing, we try to see ourselves and others as precious children of God.
Finally, God’s mission to Earth enables us to see God in human form. For most of human history, God was an invisible spirit. But when Jesus was born, “the Word [of God] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (v. 14). In Jesus Christ, we can see the face of God. We can hear his words and follow his example. We can receive his grace and truth, and can even be fed by him in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Seven months after the Apollo astronauts celebrated Christmas Eve in space, another mission went to the moon. This one was called Apollo 11, and two of the three astronauts on that mission took the first steps on the lunar surface. One of them, Commander “Buzz” Aldrin, wanted to do something very significant on the moon. He asked his pastor if he had an idea, and the pastor suggested that he take communion, also known as the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
“Buzz” Aldrin liked the idea. He saw it as his own way of thanking God — “for the Earth and for everyone on it, and for our amazing ability to do things like build spacecraft that could fly to the moon.” So his pastor gave him a small amount of bread and wine, and Aldrin took them with him to the moon. After the spacecraft landed, he and Neil Armstrong sat in the LM — the Lunar Module. Then Aldrin said this over the radio:
“This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” After turning off the radio, he read the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Then Aldrin took communion. “I ate the [bread] and swallowed the wine,” he later said. “I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.” In that moment, “Buzz” Aldrin was nourished by the body and blood of Christ.
Tonight, we are not celebrating Christmas Eve in space. But we can follow the example of the astronauts in looking at our beautiful world and seeing our common humanity. We can thank God for sending Jesus to us, to bring light into places of darkness, and to help us to reflect some of his light to others. We can recommit ourselves to being a new kind of community, one that is made up of diverse people who work together for the common good. And we can focus once again on Jesus, the one who is the Word of God in human form, full of grace and truth.
God has come to us in Jesus, and tonight we can receive him into ourselves. As “Buzz” Aldrin discovered on the surface of the moon: Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. Whoever believes in him will be part of God’s family, and will be able to do real good in the world. Because Jesus has come to us, we always have access to the love of God — “love that moves the Sun and the other stars.” Amen.
Eric Metaxas, “Christmas Eve in Space and Communion on the Moon,” The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/christmas-eve-in-space-and-communion-on-the-moon-1482526483