Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Earthrise

Something special happened on Christmas Day long ago. Something that forever changed the human understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. On that day three men traveled a long distance and beheld a wondrous sight, which inspired the recitation of scripture. Actually two events fit that description. The more famous one you know about – the birth of Jesus. But I am also thinking about the Apollo 8 moon flight.

Exactly fifty years ago on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1968, three NASA astronauts "slipped the surly bonds of earth" and orbited the moon. They became the first humans to leave this rock we call home, and they forever changed the way we see our planet. On the fourth orbit of the moon, William Anders thought to put color film in the camera, which they were using to photograph possible future landing sites on the moon’s surface, and he turned the lens toward home.

From 240,000 miles away he snapped the famous photo called “Earthrise.” It shows our vibrant, little blue and white planet, rising beyond the lifeless gray foreground of the moon’s surface. On Christmas morning the three astronauts (which means “star sailors”) read the opening lines of Genesis to earthlings celebrating the holiday. 

“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. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night….”

They ended the reading with these words: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth.” For kids used to the special effects of Star Wars and Star Trek, a still photo taken from the moon may not seem like much. But it still gives me chills to look at it.

I get the same feeling when I see the photograph of earth taken on Valentine’s Day, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe. In this shot, taken from 4 billion miles away, earth is barely visible as a “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan described it.

Seeing the earth from a distance puts everything in perspective. It wakes me up. The same is true for the more ancient event that occurred on Christmas Day. The birth of Christ puts everything in perspective for me. A new way of seeing the world and humankind happened two thousand years ago.

Humans disagree about the significance of the man Jesus, whom his followers called the Christ. Indeed, Christians disagree about Christ! Within Christianity competing Christologies continue to argue over the nature of the man and his birth. Nonreligious people dismiss the whole story as nothing more than a myth.

But for me the birth of Jesus changes everything. I do not pretend to understand what happened on the first Christmas. But I know that it changes the way I see the world. As a follower of the one born that day, I see the world from a heavenly perspective.

The closing words of McGee’s famous poem “High Flight” (which I quoted above) speaks to me of spiritual truth, as well as air flight and space travel. Jesus has made it possible for me to “put out my hand, and touch the face of God.” Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth.

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