Apollo 11 & Mary and Martha

The whole world will be reflecting on the extravagance and the wonder of the Apollo programme and in particular of the lunar landing, with the Eagle touching the surface of the moon on Sunday, July 20th, 1969.  50 years ago.  Frances and I took our boys to see the spectacular footage of the film that has documented the Apollo 11 journey to the moon, and I highly recommend it to you all.  There was a significant omission from the film, which was this.  The first food and drink consumed on the moon.  Buzz Aldrin had with him the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion.  

He radioed: Houston, this is Eagle.  This is the Lunar Module 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 these words,

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 sides 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.  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, and it wasn’t until Buzz Aldrin’s memoires were released that it became known.  The American Episcopal Church prepared a set of readings and a collect to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the first communion on the moon.  It’s also there in the church calendar, as a way of commemorating those who died in the course of space exploration, among them a significant number of Anglicans.  

The collect 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.

Buzz Aldrin, who has been honoured through the Toy Story character, Buzz Lightyear, holds a doctorate from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was acknowledged as one of the most highly educated of the first astronauts.  He is also a wonderful example of a scientist who is a committed Christian.  

Those three astronauts had plenty to stay busy with on their 8 day mission.  You could forgive them if they never stopped to pray, never stopping to think about God at all, because every minute of every hour of the mission was filled with practical tasks, system checks, attention to detail.  And yet, prayer and blessing seemed to be the hallmark of the mission.  It was common for people to say from Mission Control, God Bless or the more archaic phrase, Godspeed.   In the Apollo 11 film, President Nixon made a phonecall from the White House to Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon.  In his message he said (and I wont mimic his accent), And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth.  For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people of the Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will safely return to earth.

We may not feel that we are doing extraordinary things in our daily lives, but I’m sure that you often feel that life is full of busyness.  Emails to respond to, systems to check and maintain either at home or work, wrap around activity.  It is so easy to get focussed solely on the everyday distractions.  And then holidays come to distract us from work. And it may be that you feel that the busyness has a overarching purpose: to bring up a family, to prepare for a good retirement, to get the most our of life while you can.  Turning to the gospel, we have a pair of sisters who stand as symbols for you and for me, and the critical reminder from Jesus how important it is to stop.  We naturally want to pity Martha, running around doing the work whilst Mary, her sister just sits there and doesn’t lift a finger.  

But that’s not what Jesus sees.  Do you know anyone who throws a party or a meal and yet can never seem to sit down and enjoy the guests?  They seem unable to relax and be truly hospitable.  Often, guests can feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone like that.  Jesus can see it.  Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things.  

I think this a necessary warning to us the readers of this gospel.  How easy it is for us to go through the whole of life being distracted by the many things that we must get on with.  But Jesus says no, don’t go through life without cultivating the one thing necessary, the one thing that brings every other aspect of life into sharp focus.  Relationship with God, and to be God’s friend. The thing that lasts even after this life is over.

Jesus can see that Martha’s life is all about the distractions, it’s about busy-ness, and keeping busy.  As a society it seems like we’ve made busy-ness into a kind of virtue, something that people should pat us on the back for.  That isn’t to say that being active is bad, just that it can end up being an end in itself and Jesus says, stop and listen to me.  Focus on the one thing that matters.  Life in me.  With Jesus at the centre of our focus everything else can then fall into place.  Storms will come, difficulties will continue to come our way, but we can face them without fear.  Mary in this story is anchored on Jesus, Martha is distracted by many things and has lost her focus.

We all need to find ways of being attentive to God, whether you are introverted or the life of the party, the Bible tells us again and again to listen.  Be still.  Be attentive to the word.  In doing this our desire for God will grow.  God will speak to us in the still small voice.  

True contemplation will lead us to right action, to doing things with a God-centred purpose.

I think of Buzz Aldrin as a modern day Mary, which sounds odd, but hopefully you get what I mean.  In a busy life, full of tasks which must be completed on time and with no room for mistakes, in order to be fully alive as God intended us to be, to find moments every day, and in the very least, on the Lord’s day, and sit in a sea of tranquillity and receive food for the journey, indeed what we know in the church as the food Jesus commanded us to take in order to remember him.  

In your busyness, sit at the feet of Jesus every day and submit to his teaching.  Jesus said, I am the vine, you are the branches.  Abide in me and you will bear fruit that will last.  Amen.

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