Advent is the season where Christians prepare to remember Christ’s birth. In a webinar the Adult Ed committee viewed this fall, Austin Seminary theologian Cynthia Rigby talked about the challenge of being surprised by a season we’ve walked through many times. According to Rigby, “we all remember the feelings we had as little kids of Christmas morning … but getting the Christmas magic feeling can get harder as we get older and as we have more responsibilities … if there is never a moment when we stand in awe before the manger … then there’s a problem.” How can we keep Christmas from being the “same old / same old?”
In December 1968 NASA launched the Apollo 8 mission which sent a manned flight for the first time into lunar orbit. On Christmas eve 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders orbited the moon. One objective of their mission was to photograph the lunar surface in preparation for Apollo 11’s planned lunar landing. In their lunar orbit, William Anders trained his camera on the surface of the moon. Could the navigational charts, created from Lunar Orbiter photos, be used to find one’s location on the lunar surface? Were the prime landing spots for future Apollo missions acceptable? Or were there any unidentified obstacles that might cause problems? And could an astronaut see those obstacles and pilot his way through them? The mission’s “to-do” list was long. However their attention was soon captured by another sight:
Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!
The result was the iconic photograph “Earth Rise,” which showed the earth rising over the horizon of the moon.
On the first three orbits around the moon, the astronauts’ focus had been on the lunar surface. It was not until after the fourth orbit that the astronauts noticed the “Earth Rise.” The spacecraft was normally pointed towards the moon’s surface so it could be photographed. On the 4th orbit, Borman rolled the spacecraft so that Lovell could do a navigational sighting. It was this roll which gave the astronauts a different perspective, and which showed them the “Earth Rise.” In 2013, on the 45’th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, NASA released a video recreation of what the astronauts saw (available on the web at this link):
As the video makes clear, it was Borman’s rotation of the spacecraft which created the view on the 4th orbit which had not been seen on the previous three.
Christmas has been something we’ve been through before. Presents, special meals, church services and seasonal carols are familiar and comforting to us. Sometimes our focus on our to-do list occupies all our efforts. However, if like the Apollo 8 astronauts, we re-orient ourselves this season, we create the opportunity for surprises and for deeper insights into the meaning of God becoming incarnate on the earth.
Frank Borman had been scheduled to be a reader at Christmas eve services at his local parish, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in League City, Texas. When the date of the Apollo 8 mission changed, Borman was unable to attend Christmas eve services in person. From lunar orbit, Borman recorded his prayer, which was played at St. Christopher’s that Christmas eve:
“Give us, o God, the vision which can see thy love in the world,
in spite of human failure.
Give us the faith to trust thy goodness in spite of
our ignorance and weakness.
Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts,
and show us what each one of us can do
to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace.
Are we prepared to be surprised by God this Advent season? Will we stand in awe before the manger?
John McMillan, Author