As I continue my role as the substitute pastor of our small church, I’ve taken a break from preaching through the book of Ecclesiastes and for the three Sundays leading up to Christmas, I have been doing a series on that cheerful holiday. I have one more Christmas sermon left to do. So I’ve been thinking about Christmas quite a bit. Especially memories of those that have come before.
Forty-seven years ago this Christmas, when I was somewhat younger than I am now, three men became the first human beings to travel to the moon. The astronauts of Apollo 8—James Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders—did not land on the moon: they merely orbited it ten times. But they were the first people to ever leave Earth orbit, the first people to see the Earth as a full sphere hanging in the blackness, the first to watch the Earth rise above the moon, and the first to find themselves completely cut off from the rest of the human race on the back side of the moon, unable to see the Earth, and unable to receive or send any radio communications. They were also the first human beings to celebrate Christmas in space. On Christmas Eve, 1968, they did a live television broadcast from orbit, reading the first ten verses of Genesis.
Apollo 8 was launched on the morning of December 21, 1968. It entered lunar orbit at 4:59 AM Eastern Time on Christmas Eve and left lunar orbit at 1:10 AM Christmas morning. It splashed down into the Pacific Ocean on the morning of December 27, 1968.
Since then, just a few others made the voyage to our nearest neighbor, some landing, some, like the astronauts of Apollo 8, merely circling the moon. And once again, as they have for nearly seventeen years, a few people will celebrate their Christmas holiday in orbit above the Earth aboard the International Space Station.
As time passes, ever more human beings will be celebrating their holidays further from home than any soldier or sailor ever has. The human race is gradually leaking from Earth and taking up permanent residence elsewhere. By the end of the twenty-first century, human beings will likely be vacationing on the moon, mining asteroids, and colonizing Mars, while casting longing eyes to destinations further away.
Christmas future, however, is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. No one can predict when the first colony on Mars will be established, and no one can predict when you'll be able to buy a tour package to Tranquility Base. What is certain, however, is that Christmas will continue to be celebrated, much as it is today, wherever human beings wind up taking themselves. Gifts will be exchanged and carols will be sung. We'll pretend not to cry while we watch Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life. We'll read A Christmas Carol and Twas the Night Before Christmas to our children. We'll dream of white Christmases and snuggle beneath the mistletoe. And Christians will still celebrate the birth of Jesus and complain about how commercialized Christmas has become and worry about losing the true meaning of the holiday while recapturing it every season. In our concern for capturing the reason for the season, we'll keep on forgetting that the holiday isn't even spoken of in the Bible in the first place— and that the story of Jesus' birth is mentioned in but two of the four gospels. Only the Jewish holidays got any ink in the Bible. Of course, Hanukkah doesn't get mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, either and yet it continues to be celebrated by Jewish people every year. The only place in the Bible it gets mentioned is in the New Testament, in the Gospel of John.
Meanwhile, as the future becomes experience and then history, we'll find ourselves with yet more war, more disaster, and more financial downturns. Likewise, there will be periods of peace and prosperity. Diseases will be cured. New movies will be made, new songs written, new books published. People will marry, children will be born. There will be no shortage of tragedy and no shortage of triumph. Sometimes our favorite sports team will win the playoffs. Sometimes our favorite sports team will lose—but there will always be next year!
Our memories will be filled with good times and bad, though if we keep our perspective and pay attention to what we too easily take for granted, we'll realize as always, that there are far more good times than bad. Christmas yet to come will closely resemble Christmas present and Christmas past, but for the increase in wrinkles and gray hair, the changing fashions and new bits of technology, and ever more memories of what has gone before.