The Surprise of Christmas Eve 1968

Earthrise from Apollo 8, 1968

On Christmas Eve in 1968, I wiped condensation from the cold window so I could gaze at the crescent moon hanging in the western sky. Although I couldn’t see anything unusual about the moon, I knew there was something remarkable going on because it was being broadcast on the television behind me. We had gathered as a family to glimpse a part of God’s creation we’d never seen before.

I turned around and glanced at the TV. “Hurry, Mom! It’s starting,” I shouted upstairs in her direction. I plopped down beside Julie on the couch in our basement family room. Tom munched a bowl of salty popcorn while Janet sat apart from the others. Dad sat on the hearth poking a crackling fire. As Walter Cronkite recounted Apollo 8’s journey to the moon, removing then replacing his dark-rimmed glasses as he spoke, I heard Mom’s footsteps coming down the wooden stairs. I slid to the end of the couch so she had room.

“What did I miss?” she asked as she sat down beside me and I curled up with my head on her full-figured lap.

“He said this is their last orbit. They’ve finished all their scouting for a future landing site,” I squealed. “Now we’re looking at actual pictures of the moon through the window of their spacecraft!”

“Isn’t that something!” Mom exclaimed, smiling. “God’s handiwork right here on TV. Look at that!”

As the sun rose on the moon, casting long shadows across the craters, we saw a surface stark and gray, but beautiful. From his perch seventy miles above the moon’s surface, Major William Anders pointed out the Sea of Triton, several thirty-mile-wide craters, and the Sea of Tranquility, a relatively smooth spot planned for the first landing.

“Wow. This is neat,” was all I could say as my wide eyes remained glued to the screen.

Between beeps, NASA and the astronauts took turns speaking, and then without warning, Anders said, “For all the people on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.” He paused briefly, then began reading the story of Creation from the book of Genesis. “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.”

All three astronauts were deeply religious men and took turns reading the Creation story, acknowledging the Creator of the very body that they orbited. Science, which had gotten them to the moon and often seemed at odds with God, now coexisted with God on national television while much of America celebrated the birth of God’s son.

At the conclusion of the reading, Colonel Frank Borman 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.”

It was a breathtaking moment as our astronauts seemingly eyed the face of God and allowed us to share in the experience. I felt close to God and to my mother, and sensed hope for a bright future.

Unbeknownst to me as a child, it was a miraculous night all over the country. Many Americans felt beaten down as the year came to an end. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, riots rooted in racism had burned across the land, and the Vietnam War sent home more boys in body bags than ever before. In the presidential election, the political party that escalated the war had been ousted in favor of the party that promised to end it. For many, society seemed to be ripping apart at its seams. We were a nation divided. But that Christmas Eve was special. For the first time, humans—Americans!—left the Earth and flew to the moon. And the occasion was marked by reflecting on the presence of God. Although we were separated as a people, the godly words and experiences of the astronauts united society on that Christmas Eve. It was a healing balm for the nation.

As I snuggled with Mom, I had no idea that evening would also symbolize my own spiritual journey—a journey where I launched into the darkness and pulled away from the terra firma of my mother’s faith.