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. I recently watched the film First Man, and it brought all that vividly back. We know how it ended – so that wasn’t a tension in the film, and the (controversial) omission of planting the American Flag on the Moon didn’t mean this movie was not a glorification of America. Nor (NB First Man) did it bring any real new insights into women’s place in this story. But, this post is neither a review of the film, nor an analysis of it being made at this current time.
This post is about the First Communion on the Moon.
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.
The 2003 Episcopal Church General Convention resolved that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music prepare propers and collects for churchwide observance of the 40th anniversary of the event, July 20, 2009, and to include “The First Communion on the Moon” in The Episcopal Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts and on the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer for July 20. (Biretta tip: @rrchapman)
I only have the 1991 Lesser Feasts and Fasts on my shelf so cannot quote more than what I have found online. If you have the revised version, please add any omitted material in the comments section. I understand that there is now a “Common” to commemorate “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 [especially N.N.].
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.
Colonel Aldrin holds a doctorate in astro-physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was acknowledged as the most highly educated of the first astronauts. He is a wonderful example of a scientist who is a committed Christian.
At the time of the lunar landing, Aldrin was an elder in Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, TX.
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.”
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 is a handwritten card that Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin planned to broadcast back to Earth during a lunar Holy Communion service.
This card sold in an auction for nearly $US 180,000 in a space-related auction in Dallas, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007. (AP Photo/LM Otero)