Monday, July 20, 2009

40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing ... and of the Lunar Eucharist

(image from

Forty years ago today a couple of incredible events occurred. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module on the surface of the moon and took the first human steps across the lunar landscape. Millions of eyes were glued to TV sets, watching the fuzzy images of two astronauts walking with those graceful, bounce-like steps on the silvery, pock-marked moon. I was only three years old at the time so I don't remember watching it in real time, though according to my parents apparently I did so. Those steps on the moon were among the most memorable events of the 20th century, a feat that will not be topped by NASA until we land men on Mars.

But I was amazed by a seemingly small detail regarding this historical anniversary of which I was totally unaware until I read Rev. Bosco Peters' Liturgy New Zealand blog on Friday. The incredible thing about this incredible event was that the first food and drink consumed on the moon were the Communion elements, consumed by Buzz Aldrin. I quote from Rev. Bosco's blog entry entitled First Communion on the Moon:

"On Sunday July 20, 1969 the first people landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in the lunar lander which touched down at 3:17 Eastern Standard Time.

Buzz Aldrin had with him the Reserved Sacrament. He radioed: “Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Later he wrote: “In the radio blackout, 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 had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Deke Slayton had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly…Eagle’s metal body creaked. 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.

NASA kept this secret for two decades. The memoirs of Buzz Aldrin and the Tom Hanks’s Emmy- winning HBO mini-series, From the Earth to the Moon (1998), made people aware of this act of Christian worship 235,000 miles from Earth."
Below this image from Rev. Bosco's blog of the card Aldrin carried with him with Scriptures for his private Communion service in his own handwriting, Rev. Bosco notes: "The image shows the original card with the words 'I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.' (John 15:5) and 'When I consider thy 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?' (Psalm 8:3-4). This card sold in an auction two years ago for nearly $US 180,000."

In the above post, Rev. Bosco was unsure which denomination Buzz Aldrin belonged to. In the comments section were claims from just about every denomination under the sun, all of which were finally quelled when Adrin's pastor at the time, Rev. Mark Cooper from Webster Presbyterian in Texas added his comments; Bosco quoted his remarks his follow-up blog post today commemmorating the First Communion on the Moon:

I have the honor of serving as senior pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, TX. At the time of the lunar landing Aldrin was an elder in our church. A communion kit was prepared for him by the church’s pastor at the time, the Rev. Dean Woodruff. Since Presbyterians do not celebrate private communion, the communion on the moon was structured as part of a service with the congregation back at the church. Aldrin returned the chalice he used to earth. Webster Presbyterian continues to possess the chalice, which is now kept in a safety deposit box. Each year the congregation commemorates the lunar communion on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the landing.

While we have to confess some pride in his being a Presbyterian (at least at the time - I don’t know anything about his affiliation now, if any) communion is certainly not solely a Presbyterian ritual. The Presbyterian communion table is open to all Christians. We call it “communion” because in it we commune with God and with all our brothers and sisters in faith, in all times and places and of all names. Aldrin did not take communion on the moon as a Presbyterian so much as he did as a Christian. We Presbyterian, even we Webster-type Presbyterians, do not own lunar communion. The communion on the moon belongs to us all. It can, and should, serve as a powerful symbol of God’s presence everywhere, and of our unity as one family of faith.”
This morning as I clicked on a few news stories on my AOL home page, including the death of Frank McCourt whose memoir Teacher Man I truly enjoyed, I spied a story entitled "Eleven Things You May Not Know About Apollo 11." And the 5th fact of eleven states: "'The very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the Communion elements,' Aldrin revealed years later. The pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston gave him a kit that included a wafer, vial of wine and small chalice. Aldrin administered Communion to himself shortly after landing. The church still uses this replica of the cup that went to the moon." Pictured is this cup, also from Liturgy New Zealand:
Rev. Bosco also posted this "Common," a prayer intended for '“those who have died in the course of space exploration - among them a significant number of Episcopalians. In addition, it provides a way of praying for future space explorers and for the thousands of people whose work make the space program possible.” The collect for this “Common” reads:

Creator of the universe,
your dominion extends through the immensity of space: guide and guard those who seek to fathom its mysteries. Save us from arrogance lest we forget that our achievements are grounded in you,
and, by the grace of your Holy Spirit,
protect our travels beyond the reaches of earth,
that we may glory ever more in the wonder of your creation: through Jesus Christ, your Word, by whom all things came to be, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.'

So today we celebrate both a milestone in human history and in church history, the latter a little-known detail buried for two decades and still not terribly well-known now. But it's an amazing detail that Christians around the world may rejoice in, remembering this day not only as possibly humankind's greatest achievement but also that this achievement was celebrated in the Eucharist, a simple yet prfound means of thanksgiving to the God who created the vast universe in which we glorify Him.

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin