Saturday December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve 1968

By Eric Spina

I’ve celebrated many Christmas Eves, but, by far, the most meaningful and memorable one — a moment that will always be etched in my mind — occurred in 1968. 

All of seven years old, I had been captivated for several years by space travel and the heroic astronauts about whom I read everything I could get my hands on. A few days before Christmas, Apollo 8 was launched as the first mission to orbit the moon.

Nearly 50 years later it is hard to capture the boldness of this mission, or its danger. This was the first manned flight of the full, mammoth Saturn V rocket after months of hardware concerns and delays, and it would be the first time several different and challenging orbital maneuvers would be attempted with a human payload, including the long trans-lunar injection burn. I was so captivated by this mission that Christmas itself — much less the true meaning of Christmas — seemed to fade into the background.  

I vividly remember sitting in front of the black-and-white TV on Christmas Eve waiting for a scheduled broadcast from the astronaut crew while listening with bated breath to every bit of analysis from the announcers. And then came the crackle as three voices were transmitted from an astonishing 239,000 miles away, in orbit around the moon. Around the moon! Simply inconceivable. 

My heart raced as I waited to hear what scientific pearls of wisdom these pioneering spacefarers would share with us, what was then the largest audience for any broadcast in the history of the world. The astronauts began to speak:

Bill Anders

"We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you:

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."

Jim Lovell

"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Frank Borman

"And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas: and God saw that it was good.

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."

I get goosebumps when I remember that experience or read those words to this very day. These members of the human race — while Americans, they above all else seemed to be simply representatives of our Earth — had just been the first to witness the dramatic “Earthrise” as they orbited the moon, seeing Earth as a whole planet for the first time.

Did they marvel at the technical expertise that delivered them into lunar orbit? Did they boast of their own bravery and accomplishments?  No. In humble and reverent tones, they spoke to all of us on Earth and reminded us of our origins, of our humanity, of the greatness of our God, Yahweh, Allah or any of the other meaningful names given to one who created a world of such beauty and awe.

Suddenly, and forevermore, this 7-year old boy in Buffalo, New York, gained a deeper realization of Christmas and what God’s power and love really mean. And how, through the gift of his Son, God showed how deep His love was.

On this Christmas Eve, Karen and I have a simple wish for students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends of the University of Dayton and all of our loved ones. May we feel the love of our God, comprehend our shared humanity, and rededicate ourselves in 2017 to living the lives we are called to live. Merry Christmas, my friends and colleagues.

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