Communion on the moon

July 11th, 2019

As you’ve probably heard by now, July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. It’s now been fifty years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land and walk on the Moon’s surface. What you may not know is that, before Armstrong took his famous “one small step,” Buzz Aldrin commemorated the event by receiving communion inside the lunar landing module. That’s right—the sacrament of holy communion has been celebrated on the Moon, the only surface other than Earth where humans have visited.

I first read about this story a couple of years ago, and I admit I was skeptical at first. It had the ring of a too-good-to-be-true sermon illustration, the kind of story that makes its way around the Internet and into sermons but that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. But when I dug into it a little bit, I discovered to my delight that the story is absolutely true. Buzz Aldrin did indeed receive communion on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

It occurred during a planned period of rest between the landing and the astronauts’ exit to walk on the lunar surface. Aldrin has talked openly about the event a number of times, and described it in some detail in his book Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon (Three Rivers Press, 2009, 25-27). According to that account, he wanted to observe some ritual to mark the momentous occasion of the first humans arriving at a place other than the planet Earth. After consulting his pastor, he determined that communion would be appropriate to give thanks to God and mark the solemnity and significance of the event. So Aldrin took with him a small wafer and some wine in a sealed bag, and after they landed he received the elements, silently read a brief Bible passage, and offered a private prayer.

Aldrin had some reservations about the celebration. He was conscious of the fact that communion is a Christian sacrament, and that he and Neil Armstrong were walking on the Moon as representatives of all humankind, not just those of the Christian tradition. He deliberately chose not to call attention to it during the broadcast from the Moon’s surface, instead offering words of invitation for people to pause, contemplate the significance of the lunar landing, and give thanks in their own way. It seems clear that he wanted to be inclusive, yet also wanted to commemorate the event himself in a meaningful, authentic way within his own faith tradition. And so he chose communion.

There’s something beautiful about Aldrin’s description of communion, which includes the detail that the wine swirled a bit and took a while to settle in the Moon’s gravity, which is one-sixth that of Earth. Even in a place where the physical laws feel different, God’s grace is there. God is there.

It’s especially remarkable that the sacrament of holy communion has been received on the Moon given that only twenty-four people have traveled to the Moon and only half that number actually walked on its surface. A central ritual of the Christian faith has been observed on extraterrestrial ground, by one of the very first people to set foot on that ground. For people of faith in Christ, this is surely an affirmation of that which we already know: God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit are ever-present and everywhere-present. The communion of the saints, which extends backward and forward in time beyond the present moment, likewise extends in space as far as humans have traveled. We can travel and explore in trust and confidence that we can never outrun God’s grace.

Aldrin’s taking communion also signifies to me the essential human longing for the kind of connection that this sacrament and the other means of grace bring about. We yearn to be a part of something bigger than ourselves; we want the feeling that we are caught up in a story that began before we arrived and will continue long after we’re gone, and that we nevertheless make a meaningful contribution to it. Aldrin was on the leading edge of the most significant human accomplishment of his time, perhaps of all time. And yet as important as that event was, Aldrin felt the need to commemorate it with a ritual that reached back into the richness of human religion and history. Perhaps he recognized that even a “giant leap for mankind” is not capable of endowing itself with significance, but must connect with a larger narrative of where we’ve come from and what our purpose is in the universe.

A Christian person will recognize this impulse as the longing for God, the very thing Augustine expressed when he wrote that “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The sacrament of communion and the other means of God’s grace meet that human yearning with God’s very presence. As Aldrin’s communion on the Moon demonstrates so clearly, God’s presence is available to us through the means of grace unbounded by space or time. Likewise, the tie that binds Christian community together is big and strong enough to encompass even those who are very far away, literally on a different world.

This year finds us not only the celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first humans landing on the Moon, but also turning our attention to the Moon once more as an object of exploration and discovery. NASA has once again set its sights on the Moon as a stepping-stone to further exploration, including landing humans on Mars. The efforts of private companies and other nations are stimulating a new, 21st-century space race toward these goals and others.

As Christian people look to the stars, wondering what these things can and should mean for our faith, perhaps the celebration of communion on the Moon can inspire us to support ongoing exploration and discovery, giving us confidence that wherever we may go, God’s grace has already gone before us.

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