By Josh Graves
Published August 31, 2012
1. Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, 1969: The crew of the Apollo 11 mission — from left Neil Armstrong, Mission Commander, Michael Collins, Lt. Col. USAF, and Edwin Eugene Aldrin, also known as Buzz Aldrin, USAF Lunar Module pilot. In all, 12 Americans walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972. (NASA)
July 20, 1969: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface. (AP Photo/NASA)
2. Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11, 1969: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the Lunar Module “Eagle” during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity (EVA). Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. (NASA)
New York City welcomes the Apollo 11 crew in a showering of ticker tape down Broadway and Park Avenue August 13, 1969 in a parade termed as the largest in the city’s history. Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers)
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are famous for this moment in American history –the giant leap in human creativity, engineering, and science. I found myself thinking about Buzz and Neil over the weekend after we learned of Neil Armstrong’s passing.
My generation (I was born in 1979) is virtually incapable of appreciating (even with the help of Wiki and Google and YouTube) the magnitude of Aldrin and Armstrong’s courage. You’ve seen the photos. Some of you have the uncle, the conspiracy theorist, ever ready to tell you that we did not, in fact, ever land on the moon. “It’s propaganda!”
A story has emerged out of this watershed moment . . . the story comes directly from Buzz (Aldrin, not Lightyear, I have to remind my 3 year old son, Lucas). I wonder, to myself, if Neil thought about this moment during the final few days of his life. I wonder what these memories meant to him as he drew closer to the great mystery that is our inevitable death.
An elder in a Presbyterian Church in Houston, Aldrin wanted to mark the occasion as a tribute to God, the Creator, and as a blessing for the rest of the world. (You can look this up in Aldrin’s book, “Magnificent Desolation”.) After consulting his minister, he decided the sacrament of Communion would be the most appropriate. Don’t ask me how this worked in zero gravity (one-sixth gravity technically.
During a break in the hoopla and conversation with the rest of the U.S., Aldrin took out the bread and the wine. He received the meal Jesus had instituted two thousand years prior, when no one could have possibly imagined space travel. Aldrin read the words of Jesus, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:5) He also read Psalm 8: “You have set your glory in the heavens . . . When I consider the heavens, the words of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place . . . Who are we that you are mindful of us, human beings that you care for us?”
The first food ever consumed . . . the bread. The first liquid, wine.
In Aldrin’s own words: “. . . It’s interesting to think that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the Earth and the moon — and Who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the ‘Love that moves the Sun and other stars.’”
When these sacred moments come to you . . . what do you do? How do you respond?
The birth of a child.
A marriage mended from the snare of divorce.
The relief from immense physical pain.
The call that announces the absence of cancer from your body.
The end of an arduous journey.
The return of a prodigal friend or child.
Good news from a distant country.
The death of a hero, like Armstrong.
Bread and wine, a table, a thankful heart.
Jesus is already present in those moments. The bread and wine remind us, embodying this eternal truth down to the tips of our toes. Or to the edges of the universe.
The Love of God holds all things together. 250,000 miles from home. Aldrin knew that God was all around, in each moment, on the moon, in the bread and in the wine. I like to imagine Neil Armstrong remembering this in his final hour. I like to think all of us might do the same.
Like the prophet Jonah of the Jewish Scriptures, Aldrin and Armstrong learned what he already knew, there’s nowhere you can go that God isn’t.
So eat and drink and celebrate and dance and laugh and give thanks. Chief Tucumseh famously penned these words, words that fit Armstrong’s life and death so well. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
Josh Graves is a minister and writer. Visit his website: joshgraves.com or follow him on Twitter: @joshgraves.com. His next book, “Heaven on Earth” with Chris Seidman (Abingdon), comes out in November.