No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.” – Luke 8:16
Parts of this article are taken from the Buzz Aldrin essay published in Guideposts magazine in October of 1970.
During the Apollo 11 space mission, Neil Armstrong and Edwin ”Buzz” Aldrin were the first human beings ever to walk on the moon. Michael Collins, the third member of the team, was in charge of the command module, which orbited the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin landed. Their lunar module touched down at 3:17 PM EST on Sunday, July 20, 1969. The two astronauts walked on the moon’s surface and gathered samples of lunar rocks before returning safely to Earth.
Armstrong and Aldrin are well known for their famous first giant leap for mankind; however, few people are aware that Aldrin, a Presbyterian, was the first person to hold a religious ceremony on the Moon. He partook of communion on the moon’s surface shortly after the landing of the Lunar Module “Eagle” in the southern portion of the Sea of Tranquility.
On December 24 of the previous year, in what was the most watched television broadcast at the time, the crew of Apollo 8 read in turn from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. The crew recited verses 1 through 10, using the King James Version.
Aldrin wanted to pay homage to God during his trip to space in a similar manner. For several weeks prior to the scheduled lift-off of Apollo 11, Aldrin and his pastor Dean Woodruff had been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing. They wanted to express a feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics, computers and rockets.
“One of the principal symbols of communion,” Woodruff explained to Aldrin, “is that God reveals Himself in the common elements of everyday life.” Traditionally, these elements are bread and wine—common foods in biblical times and typical products of man’s labor.
Aldrin believed that taking communion on the moon, would symbolize the thought that God was revealing Himself there too, as humanity reached out into the universe. He later wrote, “For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”
As an elder in at Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston, Texas, Aldrin had the authority to conduct what is called an “extended serving” of the Lord’s Supper. He had brought along a pastor’s home communion kit provided to him by Woodruff that had a silver chalice and wine vial about the size of the tip of his finger.
Aldrin removed the communion elements from their flight packets. “I put them and the scripture reading on the little table in front of the abort guidance system computer,” Aldrin said.
He then radioed the Houston Space Center Mission Control to request a few moments of silence. He said, “Houston, this is Eagle. This is the Lunar Module Pilot speaking. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then gave himself communion within the lunar module on the surface of the Moon. Aldrin took communion at the same time as his church family at Webster Presbyterian. In this manner, the communion he experienced on the moon’s surface was an extension of communion held in his home church.
The astronaut had intended to share this special moment with the entire world, but officials at NASA had second thoughts and “requested that I not do this,” recalled Aldrin. NASA officials, uncomfortable about the potential backlash over religious expression by Aldrin, blacked out the radio communication with the rest of the world.
With 250,000 miles of silence between him and our planet, he observed the solemn Christian tradition that has connected millions of Christians over the past 2,000 years to their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Aldrin described the private communion as follows:
“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. And so, just before I partook of the elements, I read the words, which I had chosen to indicate our trust that as man probes into space we are in fact acting in Christ. I sensed especially strongly my unity with our church back home, and with the Church everywhere. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in Me will bring forth much fruit; for you can do nothing without me’ (John 15:5). 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.”
Many think we’re solely in charge of our destiny and accomplishments, but the truth is that nothing as remarkable as landing on the moon is possible without divine intervention, so it is only appropriate that Buzz Aldrin took time to honor God and give thanks.
How wonderful to know one of the great space pioneers of our country gave our Lord praise and adoration by communion with Him. That Aldrin took the time to express his faith during such a landmark moment in history reflects his gratitude to Jesus Christ.
Note: At Webster Presbyterian Church, the spiritual home of many astronauts, Aldrin’s communion service is still celebrated. The congregation commemorates the lunar communion each year on the Sunday closest to July 20 which is known as Lunar Communion Sunday. The church still possesses the chalice used on the moon.
Episcopal Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts
The 2003 Episcopal Church General Convention resolved that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music prepare propers and collects for church-wide observance of the 40th anniversary of the event, July 20, 2009. The Convention also decreed the inclusion of “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.
The goal was to provide a way of praying for future space explorers and for the thousands of people whose work makes 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.
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, forever and ever.
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Mark Gunderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.