As a child, I went to bed Christmas Eve filled with excitement over Santa's imminent, and certain, arrival. As I got older, the deeper implications of what Christmas Eve memorialized, the coming of God in human form, resonated just as strongly. Yet deep as those feelings were, there was only one Christmas Eve where I actually had chills. It was December 24, 1968.
The first manned lunar mission, Apollo 8, which orbited the moon, broadcast in black and white that evening, shortly before our family dressed for midnight Mass. The crew, astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders, concluded their broadcast with their TV camera panning the stark, lifeless lunar landscape, and read the first 10 lines from the book of Genesis.
As we raptly watched the lifeless void pass beneath the space capsule, we heard, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," through to "God saw that it was good. 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 Earth."
Even apart from the diversion from Vietnam and racial tensions, the pathos of the moment sent chills down my spine, even in my somewhat sardonic teen years, and the subsequent liturgy we attended shortly thereafter became even more meaningful.
For their part, the intrepid astronauts, meaning NASA--got sued. I'm not kidding! Type in 312 F. Supp. 434 in your browser and you can read the actual case. Presumably it was all right for God to come down to earth, but how dare we carry Him back to the heavens! The people litigating were atheists who said the government-funded mission illegally threatened their free speech rights (I suppose they were unable to turn their TV off and were forced to watch). Fortunately for once the courts got it right and bounced the case. Though the right to offer a Christmas greeting was safeguarded, in the 54 intervening years, have we learned much? Or are they putting an X through our Christmas. Never mind. It gives me the chills, albeit of a different order.