As longtime readers of this blog know, I was a space junkie as a kid. Dad and I watched all the launches of the Mercury astronauts together and after the completion of that program, I studied to learn all I could about the Gemini program – two astronauts in the capsule instead of just one – a necessary step that was required to learn about docking in space in anticipation of our eventual travel to the moon. That next program, named Apollo, was the one that successfully landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon – while command module pilot Mike Collins orbited the moon in anticipation of their eventual rendezvous and docking to head back home to earth.
But before Armstrong and his crew landed on the lunar surface, several other missions flew to the moon – scouting potential lading sites and tweaking everything so that Apollo 11 had the greatest chance for success. And that is where our story starts tonight.
The crew of Apollo 8 consisted of Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell and was the first mission that went to the moon, successfully orbited another heavenly body and then returned to earth. The three astronauts were the first humans to see the dark side of the moon (it is always facing away from earth) and were out of touch with mission control for 45 minutes each of the ten times they passed around the dark side of the moon.
In a strange way, it must have felt odd to be completely out of touch with the entire rest of the world – approximately 300,000 miles from home. But several interesting things were accomplished on that mission – and the folks in mission control released a sigh of relief the first time Apollo 8 came back into contact with earth, signaling a successful orbit around the moon.
For starters, seeing the dark side of the moon was a first. As was orbiting another heavenly body… But there were two other things that happened as well. Bill Anders took a photograph of earth as the spacecraft was in orbit around the moon. Entitled Earthrise, it was the first time that earth was seen as a beautiful, albeit fragile, planet in the immense vastness of space. In fact, it was mesmerizing and environmentalists still consider it the most impactful photo ever taken.
Suddenly, the earth appeared as one body, unified – not as people fighting and killing each other over seemingly insignificant differences. Our personal biases seemed to melt away and I think that everyone on earth, including the astronauts themselves, was surprised at the wonder and awe of our home as seen from the moon. It certainly gave us pause – and a chance to reflect on how we treat each other and this environment entrusted to our care.
And then, on Christmas Eve 1968, fifty years ago this Christmas Eve, the astronauts broadcast a message from the moon – to the largest audience ever to hear a broadcast. Bill Anders read first – the first four verses of the Bible from the book of Genesis. Then, Lovell read verses 5-8 and Borman finished the reading with Genesis 1:9-10. The Bible they read from was donated by the Gideons (they have placed Bibles in almost every hotel room as well) and was the King James Version. They read the passage verbatim, without any changes or alterations whatsoever.
Borman, interviewed this morning on CBS Sunday Morning, said that even years later the crew thought that they could not have improved on their choice of Scripture that Christmas Eve in 1968. And I agree…
In honor of the crew of Apollo 8, Ander’s photograph Earthrise, the recognition that we are all one people traveling through space on this little planet – and the impending celebration of the birth of our Savior, Jesus, our verse for this evening is the reading they chose Christmas Eve 1968. Moses, the author of Genesis, tells us the beginning of the greatest story ever told, in Genesis 1:1-10 (KJV), “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (5) And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. (9) And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
Borman then ended the broadcast by bidding the people of the good earth a Merry Christmas. My encouragement this Christmas is that Jesus entered the world as a baby to eventually take on the sins of the world. Furthermore, my prayer is that we embrace the idea that we are one global community, spinning on this fragile little planet in a universe created by God and populated by people who were made in His image. And… our salvation depends on believing and accepting the claims made by Jesus as He walked on this same earth! Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace… and Merry Christmas, to all of us on the good earth!