I started this day, exactly 50 years ago, rather early in the morning. The 7 year old me, woken by my father at 1am on 21st July 1969, crept downstairs and sat cross-legged in front of our black and white TV to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their, and humankind’s first steps on the Moon. The experience seeded and nurtured a passion for the universe that has inspired me ever since.
I have learned since that the astronauts had a rather more arduous and problematic final descent to the surface than was public at the time – loss of communication with Houston Mission Control, overshooting the planned landing site, repeated computer overload alarms, and Armstrong’s final desperate search for a boulder-free landing site while there remained less than a minute’s worth of fuel for the descent engine.
No wonder that Aldrin invited people around the world, soon after landing, to pause in a moment of silence and ‘give thanks in their own way.’ His own actions in that moment were pre-meditated, however. He had brought a tiny chalice and communion plate from his church at home, together with consecrated bread and wine, for a short and personal celebration of the great Christian Thanksgiving (Eucharist). This repeated meal commemorates the disciples’ last supper with Jesus before his crucifixion and resurrection, and constitutes and act that brings Christian people the world over and every day to an embodied encounter with the living Christ.
It’s a quiet act, not drawing much publicity. Even Jerry Coyne’s ‘Why Evolution is True’ (as if that needed explaining) blog merely reports on it, without the usual explicit scorn of that web-page on all things Christian.
Yet the record that some of the first words uttered by humans on the surface of another world echoed those of Christ’s last on this one, holds great significance. That moment in space and time acts as a focal point of the history of science: of the centuries-long dreams of voyages to the stars (see my Apollo 8 piece for TheConversation), of the theory of gravity and the dynamics of the solar system, of the chemistry of combustion, the physics and engineering of rocketry, of the physiology of respiration, nutrition and survival that permits humans to travel outside our atmosphere … And at that very point is celebrated the Christian wisdom that God took an incarnate form, assumed molecules and atoms, for a second time called the material creation ‘Good’. So good that God became it.
St. Paul, in his letter to the church at Colossi, identifies Christ, the second person of the Trinity, not only as the one incarnate in creation but also the agent of creation, before the world (Colossians chapter 1:15-20):
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross
It is all too easy to imagine one of the great cathedral friezes of ‘Christ in Glory’ when reading this – a distant, enthroned and haloed King. But the last verse here indicates that Paul had another picture in mind. It is the bleeding and tortured man on the wood, the teacher of the power to grow of small things like a mustard seed, the healer – out of sight of the crowds – of the sightless, that created all things. Stepping out into the world, and onto other ones, with an attitude of care, of wonder, of servanthood, is the way we follow.