Christmas Eve in the Heavens

President Kennedy said achieving the goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth would be “hard.”

Under the sweltering heat of Earth’s closest star, the President told those gathered in Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas in September of 1962 that the rocket needed to accomplish such a task would not only be gargantuan in size but would include “new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival.”

If all that advanced tech stuff sounds passé for us in the 21st century, just consider from the standpoint of 1962 that the hand-held calculator wouldn’t be invented for another five years. Coffee creamer was only a year old, and it would take just as long for us to invent the bar code as it would to get Neil Armstrong’s left foot down upon the lunar surface in July of 1969. In 1962, audio engineers had just put the finishing touches on the cassette tape.

In addition, there was the obvious point that no one had ever tried going to the moon before. There were no historical precedents, no sets of plans, no lessons or experience from which the scientists, astronauts and technicians working in the aerospace industry could draw (not to mention, no hand-held calculators).

We would be attempting to launch this hulking, theoretical invention of incredibly advanced technology on our own, toward “an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth,” where it would then be, as Kennedy coolly mentions, “re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun, almost as hot as it is here today.”

If America was to “do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out,” Kennedy told the crowd, “then we must be bold.”

Kind of like George’s offer to Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Life takes boldness sometimes. And sometimes, the stars in their courses will fight for us (Judges 5:20).

The Stephan Quintet. A collection of galaxies discovered in 1877 by Eduardo Stephan. This stunning array is featured in the opening scene of "It's a Wonderful Life" as God discourses with the wingless angel Clarence regarding the plight of George Bailey. Photo by Tom J. Martinez at http://tomjmartinez.blogspot.com/2011/02/its-wonderful-life-stephans-quintet.html

The Stephan Quintet. A collection of galaxies discovered in 1877 by Eduardo Stephan. This stunning array is featured in the opening scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as God discourses with the wingless angel Clarence regarding the plight of George Bailey. God, too, sees your plight. He knows your distresses and sorrows. He longs to be gracious to you. He sees you. He knows you. He created you. He loves you. Heaven is on its way! Hang in there! Photo by Tom J. Martinez at http://tomjmartinez.blogspot.com/2011/02/its-wonderful-life-stephans-quintet.html

“What do you want, Mary?” George asks, stung by the elixir of Cupid’s arrow as he gazes in to the delicate moonlit visage of his evening companion.

“Do you want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down for ya. Say, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.”

Mary, smiling, softly and unhesitatingly replies, “I’ll take it.” What man could resist?

But then she wonders out loud what would happen should George succeed lassoing the ancient luminary.

“Then what?”

Indeed. Then what? What in the world does man do if he ends up lassoing the moon?

“Bold” might be an understatement when attempting to describe the tenacity and dedication which marked the efforts the wise and learned scientists and technicians of the Apollo program made in the late 1960s in attempt to answer that question (again, without hand-held calculators!).

Redemption. Werner Von Braun and the Saturn V rocket he helped to design and build. The late Von Braun was the architect behind the Nazi V-2 rocket which wrought devastation in Europe during World War II. Von Braun was granted clemency for his willingness to work with the American space program.

Redemption. Werner Von Braun and the Saturn V rocket he helped to design and build. The late Von Braun was the architect behind the Nazi V-2 rocket which wrought devastation in Europe during World War II. Von Braun was granted clemency for his willingness to work with the American space program.

In the 1960s, George Bailey’s “lasso” – the Saturn V Rocket – would end up costing somewhere between

Balaam-like prophecy of Apollo moon landings? A promise made in love many moons ago. A Christmas reminder for all of us that All the promises in Christ are "Yes!" (2 Cor. 1:20).

 A promise made in love many moons ago. Perhaps a Christmas reminder for all of us that all the promises in Christ are “Yes!” (Matthew 17:20; 2 Cor. 1:20).

$375-$400 million dollars (in the currency of the ’60s) to spin just one of them heavenward. When you spend that kind of money and have so many incredibly knowledgeable people dedicated to such a unique goal, things do seem to get a little crazy. I think George Bailey, in trying to answer Mary’s musings about what might happen when one owns the moon, prophetically explains the latter years of the Apollo program the best.

“Well, then you can swallow it. And it all dissolves, see? And the moon beams’ll shoot out of your fingers, toes, the ends of your hair.”

That’s kind of what happened. Man was smitten by the elegiac beauty of Earth’s ancient, nocturnal companion and wanted to pull it down for all the world to see. Moonbeams indeed shot out of the fingers, toes and hair of most Americans at the close of the 1960s.

Trying to “lasso the moon” and stay the course of Kennedy’s exhortation to boldness, however, did not come without a cost. A little over a year after giving his now famous “Moon Speech” in Houston, Texas, Kennedy himself was assassinated in the very same state in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. As shocking and tragic as it was, the President’s untimely death further solidified the resolve to fulfill his dream of going to the moon.

Sadly, the first Apollo mission in January of 1967 also ended in tragedy. A horrific fire inside the command module during a launch-sequence test claimed the lives of astronauts, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Gus Grissom.

Many believed the dream of a manned moonshot had also died that fateful day.

Overcoming loss is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as human beings. Tragedy has a way of immobilizing the human spirit. In our grief, we might sometimes wish, as did George Bailey, that we’d never been born. Sometimes sadness or depression paralyzes us and we simply can do nothing but wait. The Old Testament patriarch Job well understood tragedy and the brooding melancholy of cursing the day of one’s nativity.

“Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
nor light shine upon it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds dwell upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
Let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Behold, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry enter it.”

But in December of 1968, at the end of socially and politically tumultuous year for the U.S. the likes of which included an escalating war in Vietnam, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy’s brother Bobby, the dream of miraculously revived.

From the tragic ashes of Apollo 1 rose the remarkable success of Apollo 8 nearly two years later.

Resurrection.

The boldness was back.

The first to break the "surly bonds of earth" and read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon, Christmas Eve 1968. Left to right - Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell.

The first to break the “surly bonds of earth” and read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon, Christmas Eve 1968. Left to right – Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell.

Astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman would spin their massive fire-breathing lariat some 240,000 miles from Earth, a record-breaking venture in human exploration. Their command module would eventually orbit the moon ten times, giving us our first-ever terrifyingly beautiful glimpses of Earth as it eerily hung in the silent blackness of outer space.

Their mission insignia, not unlike a lasso in a few ways, took the form of a figure Insignia of Apollo 8 - December 1968eight encircling both Earth and its ancient luminous companion.

Christmas Eve, 1968.

Much thought had been given to what the astronauts would say in their special broadcast back to earth that evening. Here were three human beings seeing and experiencing a breathtaking and unprecedented view of the heavens and the earth with an audience of some one billion people back home eagerly anticipating to hear what it was like. Whatever one was to say, it had to be meaningful.

As author Robert Zimmerman writes, “These three men had stood on the fringes of human experience, tracing a warm line into the dark and cold emptiness of endless space, and had tried to bring more than mere life to that emptiness.”

"Earthrise". The surreal view of Earth from Apollo 8, Christmas Eve, 1968.

“Earthrise”. The surreal view of Earth from Apollo 8, Christmas Eve, 1968.

The words they chose “expressed for these three men a heartfelt belief that the universe was more than mere energy and matter. Not only did a spirit lurk behind the veil of the terrifying black dark that surrounded them, it impelled them to live their lives a certain way, in a certain manner.”

What words could possibly be adequate to mark such a historical occasion? What do men who sit in the black void of space atop the pinnacle of human technological achievement say to a watching world?

“We are now approaching lunar sunset and for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you,” said Bill Anders as he began the broadcast. There was a pause. The crackling static from the radio transmission added a hauntingly ethereal and otherworldly atmosphere to Anders’ voice as his next words stunned most everyone who heard them.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

His wife Valerie listened with raptured delight. “Bill was reading the Bible from the moon!” A billion people heard Anders’ voice from the moonlit darkness above continue to recite the ancient text.

“And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”

Jim Lovell’s wife couldn’t believe it. She and the rest of the planet had no idea her husband and his companions had planned to do anything like this. “They must be in God’s hands,” she thought to herself.

Susan Borman wept. Her husband conclude the historic broadcast.

“We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good earth.”
Seven months later, Neil Armstrong would be the first human being to set foot on the luminous dust of lunar surface in July of 1969.

Turns out George Bailey was right. Moonbeams definitely found their way into our fingers, toes and hair.

Some two thousand years ago, in the darkness of the ancient near-eastern skies, another luminary appeared that enraptured the attention of that era’s chief wise men.

So much so they too loaded up for a rather long journey through a vast wilderness, the specific details of which elude us. Matthew’s account does tell us the followed a “star”, but what this “star” was exactly cannot be conclusively determined, even though many scholarly and persuasive theories have been put forth, beginning with Johannes Kepler who, in 1604, is believed to have been the first to make an attempt to scientifically identify the star mentioned in Matthew’s gospel.

Since then, this “star” has been thought to be anything from a rare alignment of Saturn and Jupiter, to a comet, to a supernova. There are a host of convincing theories out there, but none of which have yet to conclusively determine the precise identity of this astronomical phenomenon.

Folks who’ve attempted a systematic investigation of the Star of Bethlehem suggest that it wasn’t simply the appearance of the star which impressed the magi, but that the star appeared within the constellations of either Pisces or Ares, constellations which were said to be related to the nation of Israel within the Babylonian astronomy familiar to the magi of that time.

Whatever specifically it may have been, we have confidence in God’s Word that such a star was indeed among the glorious hosts in the heavens which continuously declare and proclaim God’s glory and handiwork (Psalm 19).

To be sure, this star was indeed something seen in the sky and bright enough to be followed. According to Matthew, this star not only moved, but was indicative to the magi of the birth of the King of the Jews, one whom they knew to be worthy of worship. How did they know all this?

It is conjectured these wise men could have been familiar with Daniel and his influence upon the reigns of Babylonian and Persian kings. It’s also possible the magi might have known something of the prophecy of Balaam regarding a future king arising in Israel.

“I see him, but not now, I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.” (Numbers 24:17)

Whatever texts the magi had been studying and whatever the “star” was, scientifically speaking, they were just the means to a much greater end. As E.W. Maunder wrote over a century ago, “The reticence of [Matthew’s] narrative on all points, except those directly relating to our Lord Himself, is an illustration of the truth that the Scriptures were not written to instruct us in astronomy, on in any of the physical sciences, but that we might have eternal life.”

And according to Matthew, it would appear the magi had found just that.

“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

I’ve often found myself a bit uncomfortable whenever I sing “O Night Divine” in church during the Christmas season. We get to the “fall on your knees” part but I never do. Makes me wonder if I’ve really encountered the Lord Jesus as the magi had. Do I truly know you Jesus?

Quite frankly, we’ve got a lot more knowledge about Jesus our fingertips than the magi did.

Do I have it all in my heart though? Sometimes, I just don’t know. Unbelief kills me and grieves the Holy Spirit. I too have lamented my birthday and have, innumerable times, rejected His love and gifts.

“Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief!”

Would I travel hundreds, (maybe even thousands?) of miles on a camel to worship Jesus? Sometimes, I won’t even travel ten miles in a car on Sunday. My unbelief astounds me.

I also can’t help but make a few parallels to the magi’s journey and our own expeditions to the moon. While I’m not in the least suggesting anyone at NASA or the Apollo program was deliberately worshipping the ancient Greek god of music and archery by any means, one is compelled to acknowledge some striking similarities between the two narratives.

According to the Grecian legends, Apollo gained his renown by slaying the earth-serpent Python. Jesus came likewise to destroy the works of the serpent, the devil and Satan.

The magi fell at the feet of Jesus and “opened their treasures,” offering Him “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Costly stuff.

But so is one $400-million Saturn V rocket.

The “magi” of the 1960s also opened their treasures and offered gifts to Apollo in hopes of conducting their souls heavenward. Many fell to their knees in obeisance to Apollo in more ways than one. Lives were lost, money spent and extraordinary preparations, time and money went in to sending men to the moon – some $100 billion by today’s standards. Again, this is not to specifically indict anyone involved in the Apollo missions with idolatry per se, but simply to point out how similar our greatest undertakings often resemble the Gospel in one way or another.

As Jesus said many years after His birth, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As Mary asks George, once you’ve acquired your treasure, “Then what?”

I think the question finally drove George to despair. Moonbeams didn’t turn out to be what he’d hoped they’d be. While he may have lassoed the moon, George, not unlike Phaeton, the son of the sun god Helios’ (later considered to be Apollo by some accounts), had no idea how to handle the reins of His father’s sun chariot once he had them. The horses proved too much and set the earth ablaze.

Regret. We’ve all experienced something like George or Job Phaeton did. We want the reins of the best life has to offer. So we get them and then it’s not at all what we thought it would be. We end up disillusioned, disappointed and depressed.

But let’s reconsider all of this in light of what George Bailey and Job both said about the day of their respective births once tragedy and disillusionment had struck them.

“Let the day perish on which I was born,” Job says.

“I wish I were never born,” George laments to his angel Clarence.

Essentially, God allows these men to experience the consequences of their careless words about their existence. Sometimes getting exactly what we want is the best cure for our prodigal and wanton pursuit of worldly pleasures and achievements. Again, don’t we all know the feeling?

Eventually, George Bailey and Job both, in the end, have to put on their “man pants” and stand accountable before God for what they’ve said.

This leads, in no uncertain terms, to repentance.

Not only that, but an unexpected and undeserved restoration of their respective lives.

Good news and great joy! Their birth was no longer a curse or a burden, for Christ Jesus, through His birth, took it from us all. We who sold our own birthrights in sin, have undeservedly received gracious new birth in Christ. Jesus’ terrestrial nativity inaugurated the restorative blessing our own sinful births so desperately need.

While It’s a Wonderful Life is just a movie, it can nonetheless symbolically suggest the incredible restorative joy the Lord Jesus can bring to a sorrow-filled life. Just read the book of Philippians. Even in prison, Paul is contagiously joyful about his circumstances because of Christ in Him.

We must be born again. Jesus’ birth makes that a reality. There’s no reason why that joy ought to be a little infectious. I sometimes wish my Christian life had a little bit more George-Bailey like joy. I do.

Through Christ, though, God has indeed granted rest to merry gentlemen everywhere. And it is only in Christ where we find true rest.

In His graciousness has granted melancholy man, drowning in the darkness of self-pity and despair, a joyous Sabbath rest and restoration. He turned man’s mourning into dancing, his dismay in rejoicing.

Like Frank Borman’s wife Susan who wept with joy at hearing her husband reading God’s Word from the blackness of space forty-five years ago, or like Mary Bailey who could barely get a word in edgewise to her husband about the overflowing Christmas goodness the townsfolk, like the magi centuries before, brought forth from their treasures, we too need a surprise gift of God’s grace and goodness from within our own formless voids.

We need the light of the Lord Jesus to enable us to have hope and believe again that our lives are in His hands.

Lord God, O’ Lord Jesus Christ, this Christmas, please, speak light over us once more.

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’” Bill Anders read from the moon over four decades ago. “And there was light.”

A billion people heard that Christmas Eve message broadcast from the dark heavens above 45 years ago today. We need it today more than ever.

So here it is again. God’s gift to us from the blackness of space. Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve broadcast was recently recreated by NASA in this video. Have a look and be blessed.

May the voice of these three astronauts from 45 years ago remind us once more of God’s goodness. Need some inspiration? Watch this.

There’s also nothing quite like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life to brighten the darkness of our unbelief and pull the tears of repentance out of our dry hearts.

The day of their birth is no longer a curse for George and Job, for there has been one born “King of the Jews” who takes away the sin of the world. His kindness leads us to repentance and new birth. He loves us very much. (Romans 2:4; John 3:16).

And because He loves us, we may, like Kennedy exhorted us just over fifty years ago in regards to going to the moon, go “boldly” to the throne of grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Come! God longs to be gracious to you. Gifts of heaven and earth await! Treasures of darkness in secret places are wrapped especially for you. The meek will inherit the earth.

Here’s a poem by John Gillespie Magee often quoted by pilots and astronauts alike which might nicely sum up this Christmas Eve in the Heavens.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

It is a true miracle to consider that through the birth of the Lord Jesus, man could literally touch the face of God.

It hardly seems possible.

But with God, all things are possible.

The one small step God took in becoming a man yielded one giant leap for mankind.

You want the moon? Just say the word. Your heavenly Father can pull it down for you (Matthew 17:20).

Merry Christmas.