It is good to be gathered here with you on my favorite night of the year, the night that we celebrate the birth of a baby who will change the world.
Everything about this evening is special – the music that our choirs and instrumentalists have practiced for so many hours; the beautiful flowers and altar, arranged and prepared by faithful and loving hands, the glittering candlelight that adds to the magic and mystery of this night.
And so do each and every one of you. Whether St. Dunstan’s is your church and you are here every Sunday, whether you’re visiting from out of town, or whether you’ve not set foot in a church in years, yet somehow felt drawn to this place this night, we are glad you are here. Your presence adds to the joy of our celebration.
We are here tonight to hear the ancient story of God taking on flesh and blood in the birth of a baby to a poor, peasant couple in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. For almost 2,000 years people have gathered on this night to hear this story that has brought hope and joy and comfort to more people than can be numbered.
On this Christmas Eve I’m also thinking about another story, one not nearly as ancient, but which may seem old to some of you, and which will be remembered by many others.
It’s a story that occurred literally out of this world exactly 50 years ago tonight.
On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 with three astronauts on board – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders – lifted off from Earth, headed for the Moon.
Its journey of almost a quarter of a million miles was the furthest that any humans had traveled through space. They were the first people in history to leave Earth’s orbit and orbit the Moon, flying 6o miles above its surface. They were the first humans to see what we call the “dark side of the moon.”
But what Apollo 8 is remembered for is not so much all these historic firsts, but something that happened on Chirstmas Eve on their fourth lunar orbit, when Borman looked over his shoulder and saw something that made him gasp in awe.
“Oh, my God!” he exclaimed, and his words were a prayer. “Look at that over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that is pretty!”
The astronauts were awestruck by the sight of Earth, a blue and white orb sparkling in the blackness of space, rising above the surface of the moon. They hurriedly took a picture, then lamented that the camera had black and white film in it. Before they could change the film, they were back on the dark side of the moon, and thought they had missed their chance.
But when they came around again, there was the Earth once more, and they took the now iconic picture known as Earthrise, which is on the cover of our program tonight.
This was the first glimpse of our planet from beyond itself. We were all made tremendously aware that our Earth is indeed fragile, an island home in a vast expanse of interstellar space.
The photograph moved poet Archibald MacLeish to write in The New York Times on Christmas Day that year, “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence in which it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers (and sisters) on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers (and sisters) who now know that they are truly one.”
Late on that Christmas Eve 1968, a year which had seen the assasinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots in the streets of many American cities, and numerous protests against our involvement in an unpopular war halfway around the globe, the astronauts of Apollo 8 had a Christmas card for America and the world.
On one of its final orbits around the moon, Borman announced to millions of people around the globe gathered in front of their TV sets, “The crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send you.”
While a camera focused on the moon outside the spacecraft window, William Anders read the opening words from the creation story from the Book of Genesis.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” he began. “And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep.”
Then Jim Lovell took over. “And God called the light day and the darkness he called night.”
Borman closed the reading. “And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas, and God saw that it was good.”
A hushed audience throughout the lands of Earth heard Borman sign off from the Moon: “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 is hard to describe the impact that photograph and Christmas message had on a divided nation. New York Times reporter John Noble Wilford wrote that “This message, truly from on high, was like a gift of hope: There is still beauty to behold, still an aspiration to goodness and greatness.
“Those who believe in other gods, or no god at all, shared in the spirit of the moment, its solemnity and its evocation of wonder.
“And believers, if only in hope, experienced emotions of relief and an updwelling of optimism, where there had been despair.”
Last week I heard James Lovell reflect on that other-worldly Christmas Eve half a century ago.
“I looked up and saw it – my world, 240,000 miles away,” he said. “And I put my thumb up to the window and completely hid the Earth.
“Over three billion people, mountains, oceans, deserts, cities, everything I ever knew was hidden behind my thumb.”
We are here tonight because God chose to take on flesh and blood and make a home on this Earth so small it can be hidden by an astronaut’s thumb.
It is our tradition on Christmas Eve to read about the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel, the story we heard tonight. For most of us it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without hearing that reading.
But our tradition also gives us the option of another gospel reading on Christmas Eve, the first verses from the Gospel according to John.
It echoes the words the astronauts of Apollo 8 read from Genesis.
“In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us.”
No matter what our divisions and troubles, and they are as serious now as they were 50 years ago, and at that first Christmas almost 2,000 years ago, God chose to be with us.
That is the message of this night. God is with us. Here tonight in this church, in our homes, and in all the homes in all the nations of the world. We earthlings are not alone. And that is very good news.
So Merry Christmas, and may God bless us all, all of us on this good Earth.