The 21st July 2019 marks fifty years to the day since Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the surface of the moon. The words of Armstrong to the world as he took that first step summed up the enormity of the achievement: ‘That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind’. The first human to set foot on the moon was preceded by other achievements and firsts we can easily forget – the first time humans left the orbit of the earth, the furthest away humans have ever travelled, the first time pictures of the whole earth were taken and the first time humans went around the dark side of the moon (on earth we can only see one face of the moon). All of this was made possible by space capsules and rockets that had less computer memory than the computer or smartphone on which you read these words. Out of all the achievements of human intelligence and ingenuity, few have ever or will ever surpass the achievement of what happened fifty years ago. Here I share a few thoughts on this historic anniversary.
On the occasion of the moon landing, the astronauts received a message from Pope Paul VI. It read: ‘Honour, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams! Bring to her, with your living presence, the voice of the Spirit, a hymn to God, our Creator and Father’. These words of the Pope resonated with the sense of awe and wonder experienced by the astronauts who looked back at the beauty of the earth and were struck by the unity of all humanity who live on this relatively small planet we call home. In fact on an earlier Apollo mission (Apollo 8 - the first to leave the earth’s orbit), Capt. Bill Anders famously read the Creations account from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve 1968: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and God said let there be light and there was light’. He wasn’t the first to express the religious experience of being in space. A few years before, Russian astronauts entered space and were greeted on their return by the President of the Soviet Union. He asked them sarcastically: ‘Well, did you see God out there?’ The astronauts replied: ‘After the beauty of what we have seen in space, there must be a God’.
In the Bible, the moon was seen as a sign of God’s eternity and as a witness to his presence. It is referred to in the first creation account in the Book of Genesis as ‘the smaller of the two great lights, to govern the night and the stars’ (Gen. 1:16). The eternal presence of the moon close to the earth was used as an analogy of God’s justice and steadfastness: ‘In his days justice shall flourish and peace till the moon fails’ (Ps. 72:7). When the three men in the Book of Daniel began to praise God, they began by leading the sun and the moon and all creation in praise of the Creator: ‘And you sun and moon O bless the Lord; O you mountains and hills O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise forever’ (Dan. 3:62-63). In this sense, we humans are part of creation but fulfil a priestly role by praising God for his glory that is communicated in creation. Consider these beautiful words by St Leontius of Cyprus: ‘For the creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him’ (Against the Jews and in Defence of the Icons of the Saints).
That is why the contemplation of creation, including the moon and the night sky, lifts our minds to the One responsible for it all. In the words of Psalm 19: ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. When we gaze on the wonder of a night sky, we feel an immense paradox. On one hand we realize how small and insignificant we are and on the other, how much we matter to the Creator who made the moon and stars and who also created us: ‘When I see the moon and the stars that you have arranged, what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you should care for him? Yet, you have made him little less than a god. For this we revere you’ (Ps. 8). It leads us to realize our smallness and yet our dignity. The universe is of immense magnitude and yet each of us is known, loved and created by God.
The moon has also been chosen to teach important truths of our faith. Our Lady is referred to in the Book of Revelation as the woman ‘with the moon at her feet’ (Rev. 12:1). As the moon has no light of its own but merely reflects the light of the sun, so Mary is illuminated and filled not with her own light but with God’s light. She is the one who is ‘fair as the moon’ (Song of Songs 6:10).
The same is true of the Church. On the Feast of the Epiphany this year, Pope Francis taught that: ‘How many times too, have we, as a Church, attempted to shine with our own light! Yet we are not the sun of humanity. We are the moon that, despite its shadows, reflects the true light, which is the Lord. The Church is the mysterium lunae and the Lord is the light of the world (cf. Jn 9:5). Him, not us. The Pope could also have taken the analogy further. As the moon has different phases determined by its position to the sun, so the degree of divine light which we reflect is always determined by our relation to Christ.
A further fruit of the Apollo mission was the unity of all humanity. The moon landing took place only 24 years after the end of World War II which resulted in horrific loss of life after countries had declared war on each other. When the first pictures emerged of the earth suspended in space as a single planet, the ideal and language of unity of all peoples gained momentum. This was strengthened further by the millions of people from around the world who watched the moon landing on TV. There was a real sense that the astronauts were representing not just America but all of humanity. Listen again to the words of Michael Collins, one of the crew of Apollo 11:
“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced.”
Contrast this to the space race between America and Russia that was going on that time that was part of the Cold War rivalry between them. Such was the distrust between the two superpowers that one feared that whoever could dominate space could use that advantage to attack the other. Before his death in 1963, President Kennedy addressed this fear directly. He said: ‘We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding’.
Today, we thank God that President Kennedy’s vision has been realised. Space travel has led to many innovations. We have not witnessed space warfare. The success of the International Space Station is partly due to the co-operation between many countries united by the common goal of the good of humanity. From space, the petty differences that divide us seem small and surmountable. Perspective is everything. A wider perspective that the exploration of space afforded us addresses the dangers of excess Nationalism and individualism which can fragment and divide. In interviews with the astronauts, they spoke of the fragility of the earth, the unity of her people and the unity of the land, seas and oceans.
One of the many lessons from the exploration of space over these last 50 years is that the human spirit reaches its full potential when it rises above itself to reach for new goals and new horizons. From a religious and spiritual point of view, the discoveries of the past 50 years have not eliminated faith in a Creator God but, I believe, have pointed to him. We are only at the beginning of what is still there to discover about the handiwork of our Creator God. The horizons we chase keep stretching out further before us. Every answer leads to a further question. This is how God created us with a dynamism to explore, to go on adventure and to see how connected we are to the rest of the universe. And so our search for truth and for understanding goes on, aided by the two wings of faith and reason with which the human spirit rises to that truth (cf. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio).
So the next time there is a clear night sky with a full moon, turn off the TV and shut down the computer. Look out the window or go outside to behold with awe and wonder the beauty of the moon surrounded by the stars. Remember those words of praise of St Francis of Assisi with his Canticle to Creation: ‘Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars. In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair’.