Communion on the Moon

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50 years ago, the “Eagle” lunar module of Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. In mere minutes, Neil Armstrong would descend to the surface. But before Armstrong took his famous step, his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin was allowed a few moments for religious ritual. Reaching into his personal items (astronauts were allowed a small pouch of personal effects), Aldrin took out a wafer of bread, a miniature vial of wine, and a miniature chalice. After pouring out the wine, which curled up in the chalice under low-gravity, Aldrin ate the bread and drank the wine, reading to himself John 15:5:

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.

The moment was not widely publicized, and NASA asked Aldrin not to read the verse out loud, because there had been church-space controversy before, particularly after the crew of Apollo 8 read Genesis 1 over a live broadcast on Christmas Eve. And indeed, for the most part the NASA program was a secular project, with a tightly contained focus on the technical demands of navigating space. With a few exceptions, the astronauts and NASA officials had little to say concerning the metaphysical or theological meaning of their explorations. In a delicate political environment, where NASA was competing for funding with the Vietnam War and urban decline, there was an institutional priority on avoiding as much criticism as possible. Yet ironically, the absence of any articulated philosophical motivation must be considered a significant reason that NASA lost its innovative edge after making it to the moon. Once America beat the Russians and fulfilled Kennedy’s call for the moon, why try to do any more? Incredible as it may seem, public support for funding NASA declined after the success of Apollo, and after Apollo 17 in 1972, no man has ever returned to the moon or travelled further afield.

Thus it seems particularly appropriate that we return, on this anniversary, to consider the theological significance of our emergence as a space-going species. Buzz Aldrin already had this in mind during the course of Apollo 11; he had identified another Bible verse of interest — Psalm 8:3-4 — and on the way back to earth, he said this one out loud:

When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man, that thou visitest him?”

The verse, already beautiful and profound from an earth-bound perspective, unfolds to reveal deeper meaning in light of man’s mission to the moon. For Buzz Aldrin saw the moon, not only at a distance, but also up close. The moon that is the work of God’s fingers is the same moon that Aldrin held in his fingers. Now that we can journey to these great forces of the cosmos, we can ask again with adamant wonder, “what is man that thou art mindful of him?” For as astronauts we seem both much larger and much smaller. Much larger, for we can take flight and go, conceptually, nearly anywhere. But much smaller, for we see how small we are in a gigantic cosmos, and how inhospitable it all is except our miniature earth-home.

It is striking that the very next verse of Psalm 8 seems to capture this duality.

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

We are made lower than the angels, but only a little lower. And God has crowned us with glory and honor. We must see therefore that it is in our vocation as humans to soar. The angels ascend and descend in the skies, and so do we. Therefore, as people of Biblical faith, we are well-equipped to courageously recover the unfulfilled promise of the moon landings. Of all people, we can confidently venture where none have gone before, trusting in the providence of the God who made us and the vast universe. We need only, as we go, to remain in Christ. For we have his promise that then we will bear much fruit. And then, perhaps, the worship of God in bread and wine will proceed not only on every continent, but on every planet, and in the sublime emptiness of vacuum space where nothing is, except man on his spaceship, together with the constant presence of Almighty God.

Peter Johnston