Monday, July 21, 2014

One Giant Leap of Faith for Mankind



The anniversary of July 20, 1969 moonwalk reminded me of a column I wrote following the 2012 death of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Everyone knows that Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Less well known is that is also the date when the first communion, or celebration of the eucharist, took place on the moon.

Everyone knows that Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Less well known is the first communion on the moon.

It happened on July 20, 1969, the day that Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

Aldrin, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, performed the short communion ceremony, also called The Lord’s Supper.

"This is the pilot," Aldrin said into his microphone, ”I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."

Aldrin then served himself communion, using a kit provided by the pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

In 1970, Aldrin wrote of the experience. “I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me.

“In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, 'I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.'

"I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements."

According to a 2009 story in the Washington Post, Aldrin had hoped that NASA would broadcast the service worldwide. But the space agency decided against it because of a lawsuit filed (and later dismissed) by atheist Madelyn Murray O'Hare after Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas.

Later, Aldrin told an interviewer that “if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.”

At the time, however, “I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”

The small chalice Aldrin used for the wine went back to Webster Church. Each year on the Sunday closest to July 20, the congregation celebrates what it calls Lunar Communion.

Aldrin isn’t the only person to have gone to space who have had religious experiences.

Frank Borman, who read from the book of Genesis while orbiting the earth, later said “I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than any of us—that there was a God, that there was indeed a beginning.”

James Irwin, who walked on the moon in 1971, described the lunar mission as a revelation. “I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before,” he said.

John Glenn—the first American in space—said about his view from his spaceship: “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible.”

Glenn’s comments might have been made in response to the purported comment from the first man in space—Soviet Yuri Gagarin.

It was widely reported that Gagarin, who died in 1968, stated during his flight that he didn’t see God in space. However, no record of those comments back to earth exist, and his friend, Valentin Petrov, stated that the quote originated from a speech by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev.

In fact, says Petrov, Gagarin was a baptized member of the Orthodox Church and reportedly told his friend that nobody can go to space and “not have God in his mind and his heart.’"

As for Armstrong himself, in keeping with the way he maintained a steadfast private life, it's not known if he was religious. But he did once say that "mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand.”

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