As we remember the first men on the moon, let’s not forget the first supper on the moon — the Lord’s Supper, served and received by an elder in the Presbyterian Church, Apollo 11 astronaut Eugene ‘Buzz’ Aldrin.
“This is the (lunar module) pilot,” Aldrin said on July 20, 1969. “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.” Aldrin’s way was to serve himself communion, using a kit provided by the pastor of Houston’s Webster Presbyterian Church.
Aldrin’s brief and private Christian service never caused a flap, but it could have. Aldrin has said that he planned to broadcast the service, but NASA at the last minute asked him not to because of concerns about a lawsuit filed (later dismissed) by atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare after Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas.
Did NASA do the right thing by making Aldrin keep his religious beliefs to himself?
As an elder in the Presbyterian church, Aldrin had the authority to conduct what is called an “extended serving” of the Lord’s Supper. But Aldrin was representing the United States of America that day, and in many ways, all of his fellow earthlings. Should he have even conducted a private religious service?
“In the radio blackout,” Aldrin wrote in Guideposts magazine in 1970, “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. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’
“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.”
One small sip for man, one giant leap of faith for mankind.
The small chalice Aldrin used for the wine went back to Webster Church. Each year on the Sunday closest to July 20, the congregation celebrates Lunar Communion. “Communion can be celebrated anywhere,” senior pastor Mark Cooper said Sunday. “Even cramped up in a lunar module on the moon.”
Aldrin wasn’t the only person to bring his faith to the moon that day. The astronauts left behind a tiny silicon chip containing a message of peace from four U.S. presidents and 73 other world leaders. Seven of them made references to God — the presidents of Brazil, Ireland, South Vietnam and Malagasy, the king of Belgium, Pope Paul VI — and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, who wrote:
“On this occasion when Mr. Neil Armstrong and Colonel Edwin Aldrin set foot for the first time on the surface of the Moon from the Earth, we pray the Almighty God to guide mankind towards ever increasing success in the establishment of peace and the progress of culture, knowledge and human civilisation.”
UPDATE: I asked On Faith panelist Richard Mouw about provisions for self-serve communion. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He also is representing the Presbyterian Church-USA as co-chair of the official Reformed-Catholic Dialogue. Mouw’s response:
“For our Reformed theology, communion is something that necessarily takes place in a congregational context, with two requirements. It is tied to–accompanied by– the preaching of the Word and it requires at least one elder assisting the minister. Two exceptions: chaplains in military and other settings are given a blanket approval to conduct a communion rite without an elder. And a minister and elder may bring the elements to a sick or shut-in person–with the understanding that this is an extension of the congregational rite that has recently taken place. There is simply no provision for a solitary self-serving of communion. It is difficult to think of a theological rationale even as an unusual event.”