The Risk of Birth – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Church Building

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Merry Christmas!

Fifty years ago today, Apollo 8, captained by three astronauts – Lunar Module Pilot, William Anders; Command Module Pilot, Jim Lovell; and Mission Commander, Frank Borman – left the earth’s gravitational pull and entered “the vast expanse of interstellar space.”[i]  Having circled our planet for nearly four days, the CSM[ii] coupled its orbital momentum with the craft’s power and leapt into the tug of the moon.

Anders, now an affable and still-humble 85, last week recalled that on the day of the Apollo’s launch, “I suddenly found myself [in the middle seat of the cockpit] 360 feet [above the ground] … I looked down below, and there was the news media people coming in to park their cars.  It was still dark.  And I thought to myself, ‘They’re sending me to the moon!’”[iii]

As deep and inky as the cosmos would appear through the porthole window of their spacecraft, the world the astronauts left behind was not without its own darkness.  The 1960’s had begun with the Bay of Pigs and, not long after, the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  On March 8, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson sent ground troops into Vietnam, effectively escalating that simmering conflict into war, and the very year that launched Apollo 8 had already witnessed the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr, in April, and Robert F. Kennedy, in June.

Domestic unrest and global threats would persist into the approaching decade, as well, headlined by an American president so laboring under the weight of ego and ambition that he would flagrantly evade taxes[iv] to ensure his lifestyle and audaciously break the law[v] to ensure his election.  About those years, Episcopalian[vi] Madeleine L’Engle wrote “The Risk of Birth, an Advent Poem.”[vii]  Her work begins:

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

Even so, in defiance of those days’ darkness, some astronomers and physicists chose to see beyond the confines and sufferings of their world.  Somehow, these engineers and scientists believed enough to reach beyond every earthly horizon humankind had ever known.

 What must it have been like for Anders, Lovell, and Borman, to make that leap, literally  from one world and into the next?

How must they have felt to hear the thrusters quiet, to feel themselves suspended in that great hush of the cosmos, waiting for the moon’s gravity to draw them near?

Two thousand years ago, at the turn to Anno Domini, God’s mission seemed in grave peril to anyone who cared pay attention.  The ordering of the census marked the press of the imperial thumb on the backs of the Jewish poor, who found themselves a burden to the royalty of their own people, and a nuisance to the empire’s authorities who ruled them.  In those days, the hillsides and margins of Judaea teemed with the anger of these penurious who had little power to improve their situation.  These disenfranchised men and women began banding together under the leadership of itinerant preachers, religious prophets, and political dissidents.  To the poor, these communities were freedom fighters of principle and purpose, seeding hope in the hopeless.  To the Jewish leadership, these communities were disorganized troublemakers, threatening their relative comforts.  For the Roman government, these communities were terrorist militias, challenging the bloody-won Pax Romana.  As L’Engle’s “Advent Poem” continues:

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn –
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

In defiance of that darkness, God chose for the Son of Man to be born.  Somehow, a teenaged couple dared see beyond the confines and sufferings of their world.  Somehow, shepherds believed enough to journey beyond the safety of their local horizons.

What must it have been like for the Holy Family, to make their leap, to sing instead of  weep when the door of the inn slammed shut?

How must they have felt to hear the verse of angels whispering encouragement in the hush of a manger as – alone…so alone – they delivered their son in a messy trough?

Once in lunar orbit, NASA broadcast live audio and video from the Apollo 8 spacecraft to an estimated one billion people worldwide.  Television screens around the globe filled with the black and white image of a window, through which the curve of the moon seemed close enough to touch.  Mission Control had given the crew orders to think of something “appropriate,” to say, and, not trusting their own verse, they chose to read from Genesis.

The crew “couldn’t take an entire Bible into outer space – [that was] too heavy – so the first 10 verses of the first book were printed on flame-resistant paper as part of the flight plan,” [viii] and on Christmas Eve – from the orbit of the moon – the three men took turns and read:

“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.

‘And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day…’

“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[, good] Earth.”

On this Christmas Eve in 2018, the mission of God still seems imperiled for those of us who dare pay attention.  Even so, we as the Body of Christ choose to defy that darkness and gather again in the great hush of the cosmos, waiting for the giver and guardian of life to deliver the first breaths of a new life, to bind us to a world that yet might be good.  On this Christmas Eve, we gather in the great hush of a manger, trusting in the promise of angels and the hope of our God to deliver a Savior, to renew the goodness of our hearts.

L’Engle’, who would have celebrated her one-hundredth just last month, concludes her Advent verse:

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn –
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

The inn is full on planet earth…Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.”  God takes the risk of birth because the creation is worth saving, we are worth saving, you are worth saving.  From earth to moon; from manger to cross; from the majesty of this night to the magic of tomorrow morning: thanks be to God that Love still takes the risk of birth.  On this Eve of the Incarnation, dare to see beyond the confines of this world … on this night, reach beyond every horizon we have ever known … on this Christmas Eve, defy this world’s gravity – its sin and suffering, its guilt and shame, its loneliness and grief, its anger and hatred – and, rising above, let us be born in Love incarnate, drawing our first breath in a renewed creation.  For this is the Good News, and by its hope we declare: “Merry Christmas, to all of you, all of you on the good [, good] earth.”

 

[i] From “Eucharistic Prayer C” in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 370.  “At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”
[ii] NASA referred to the spacecraft itself as the “command and service module,” or “CSM.”  From NASA’s “Mission Pages.”
[iii] “Remembering 1968: How Apollo 8 Sent A Timeless Holiday Greeting From The Heavens.”  Cowan, Lee. CBS Sunday Morning.  December 23, 2018.
[iv] “How Nixon’s Tax Trouble Could Influence Quest For Trump’s Returns.” Faler, Brian. Politico. December 21, 2018. “The Providence Journal-Bulletin got ahold of Nixon’s tax returns, showing he paid $792.81 in federal income taxes in 1970, and $878.03 in 1971 … In April 1974, the [Joint Committee on Taxation] produced a 1,000-page report that found almost a dozen problems with Nixon’s returns.  The agency said he owed $475,431, including interest for unpaid taxes over four years.”
[v] “The Complete Watergate Timeline (It Took Longer Than You Realize).” Bush, Daniel. PBS NewsHour.  L’Engle wrote “The Risk of Birth” in the weeks of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and Nixon’s “most memorable denial: ‘I am not a crook.’”
[vi] L’Engle is interred in the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan.
[vii] With gratitude for Good Shepherd parishioner and L’Engle enthusiast Laura Van Slyke’s sleuthing, “The Risk of Birth” first appeared in an eponymous collection chosen by her friend, Luci Shaw, and published in 1974 by Harold Shaw Publishers.  The verse was then included in a 1978 collection entitled, The Weather of the Heart.  In any case, I would suggest it could be read as often as the Lukan birth narrative and the world would only be richer for the hearings.
[viii] The interwebs teem with apocryphal ideas about the rationale and circumstances behind the astronauts’ choice to read from Genesis.  I quote here from a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article (Jim Lovell graduated high school in Milwaukee) that includes the detail about the pages of Genesis being added to the flight plan, which seemed to me closest to a verifiable fact.  I suggest that evaluating their choice through the lens of 2018 sensibilities (or to proof-text in support of either religiosity or anti-religiosity arguments) misunderstands the effect of that moment and its significance for those who experienced it in front of their televisions.  Here I intend to point toward that occasion as an experience of something entirely new and beautiful and hopeful – one certainly worth admiring.