While we look around us today and see a world in turmoil, it is easy to forget that we’ve experienced upheaval before – and 1968 was no exception. In January, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam and by February we were involved in a full scale war there. In April, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and riots erupted across the cities of our nation. Two months later, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated and riots broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
But on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit. Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon, and the first astronauts to spend Christmas in space.
To mark the occasion, they sent Christmas greetings and live images of the moon back to their home planet and read from the Book of Genesis. It was estimated that as many as one billion people worldwide watched the historic broadcast or listened on the radio.
As the world looked at images of the Earth and the moon seen from Apollo 8, Jim Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” They ended the broadcast with these words.
William Anders said, “For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you. 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.”
Jim Lovell read next, “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament, and divided the waters, which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”
Frank Borman read, “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear:’ and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.” Borman then added, “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.”
In that moment, we were reminded of something very important. We were reminded that regardless of the upheaval, violence, and fear surrounding us that we were all together on the good Earth. An Earth so good and a creation so loved that God slipped in quietly through this cleft in history 2,000 years ago to be one of us … on the good Earth. And God did so in the person of Jesus who we remember this night as a vulnerable, helpless baby reminding us that God in Christ gets us.
This news doesn’t come to the high and mighty – the Herods, the Quiriniuses, or the Caesars. This news comes to, well, lowlifes first! Shepherds were held in quite low regard in first century Palestine and the message of God's radical inbreaking comes to the ones we don't expect. When the shepherds go to Bethlehem and see this thing which had been made known to them … they found ... a very ordinary looking couple and a very ordinary looking tiny baby. Yet, looking into that baby’s eyes they saw themselves in a fully human child who would save them. In the eyes of the Christ child all of humanity was there and in all of humanity something of this child would be present too. In that mutual gaze between the Christ child and the shepherds lay the hope of the world … the hope for this good Earth and all who live in it. They then return home praising God for all they had heard and seen.
These shepherds and the three astronauts who greeted us from space this night experienced a transformation. Their experiences moved them to see beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary … to see a glimpse of the Divine. When you can see beyond the eyes of a baby and see the face of God and when you glimpse the good Earth from God’s perspective, you then can see the face of God in the eyes of others. And when you can see beyond the surface and see Christ in the other and in all creation, you can never forget who God is. From the farthest reaches of space to the dirt under the feet of shepherds, God is, was, and will always be there no matter what.
God has not given up on us no matter the circumstances of our lives or of this world. God came for us this night many years ago as a baby and on this night he still comes to us in bread and wine … and in the faces of all God’s beloved. The Christ child invites you this night to see beyond the obvious and through to the extraordinary … that we may bear the light of Christ to all … all of us on the good Earth.