‘Earthrise’ and the great mystery of Christmas

"Earthrise." Photo: Bill Anders/NASA/Public Domain

We are drawing near to the end of 2019, a year in which we looked back on some significant anniversaries. One of the most important, of course, was on July 20 — 50 years since man first set foot on the moon.

It made me happy to see that many who marked this milestone did not merely focus on the accomplishments of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They also recognized that the feat relied very heavily on everything that led up to it: all the missions of Mercury, Gemini, and previous Apollo flights; all the engineers, mathematicians, and others who gave their best to figure out how to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s goal.

But at this time of year, I remember Apollo 8, a mission that took place just about six months before Apollo 11. It was the first manned flight to orbit the moon and return to earth. Its mission included checking various systems that would be used in later flights and identifying the landing point for Apollo 11. It was perhaps best known as the Apollo flight that gave us Earthrise — that stunning first color photo of our planet as seen rising above the moon’s horizon.

“Earthrise.” Photo: Bill Anders/NASA/Public Domain

It was also the mission that broadcast a special message as it orbited the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. Astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman took to the airwaves and read from the first chapter of Genesis. It still gives me chills when I see a video of that Christmas Eve broadcast and hear those words being read over a crackly transmission from outer space: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void.” 

The whole scene — contemplating the Creation story read from a quarter million miles away from earth by three men who are infinitesimally small in the whole scheme of things — drives home in a vivid way how all our lives are dependent on the Creator, and yet how important man is to that Creator.

At the beginning of the Space Age, there were many unknowns: how we could get to space, to the moon, to other planets; what it would be like out there; whether man could survive; and what we might find. These past decades have seen human ingenuity find the answers to many of those mysteries and more. We have discovered much and invented much, and our new technologies have changed the way we live in many ways.

But for as many questions that we can answer, we have discovered many other mysteries of the universe, of creation, that we still cannot explain. I’m talking about mysteries of the physical universe. Can we ever really know how far it extends, how long it has existed, how it came into being, or what makes it all tick?

The crew of Apollo 8: Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman. Photo: NASA/Public Domain

And then there are the mysteries of humanity that still plague us. We have come so far, technologically, since 1969. But morally? Socially? Spiritually? Are we even close to comprehending the mystery of evil? Why are people still suffering, still starving, still fighting, still scheming? Will nations ever truly be at peace? Will there ever be true justice for all? 

We speak of things that plague us in this life as “mysterious.” Why does this little girl suffer from an incurable brain tumor? Why does this man, in spite of all his wealth, feel so empty? Why did such-and-such a priest lead a life of abuse and deception? Why did this young woman take her own life? Why did this young man stab an elderly woman to death, just for a few dollars? Why did a tornado wipe out an entire family?

But we also speak of a “great mystery” at this time of year. An ancient Christmas chant that I love, “O Magnum Mysterium,” proclaims in wonder: 

O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord, Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

At the end of this year in which we have contemplated the wonders of going to the moon, and in the midst of a world that sometimes seems so weary, so full of noise and confusion, so despondent, let us spend some time contemplating this “magnum mysterium,” this great mystery, a wonder far greater and deeper than the accomplishments of the Apollo program, or any human achievement. It is, after all, because man could never pay the debt to God for the sin of Adam and Eve that God chose to take on our nature and pay the debt himself. 

So if we marvel at God’s creation, remembering the Christmas Eve reading of Genesis from outer space, we might also meditate on another passage at the same time: 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16) 

A blessed and joyous Christmas and New Year to you and to all those you love! 

To learn more: 

Watch a video of Apollo 8 reading from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve 1968 at CDmag.net/2oYeqXH.

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