All through the 1960s, my generation had been riveted by the space race started by President Kennedy. But what the astronauts accomplished on Christmas Eve of 1968 left us awestruck, and I remember it not as a moment of victory in the space race, but as an opening of religious wonder on that Christmas Eve…
Sometime over the Christmas holidays, amid all the family celebrations and the national drama of the government shutdown, a story I saw online reminded me of Apollo 8, the first manned orbit of the moon in December of 1968, back when I was younger than our youngest freshmen now at Wyoming Catholic College.
That year was much more turbulent than 2018—so much more so that it’s hard to make reasonable comparisons. The Vietnam War was at its height, with over half a million American soldiers “in country.” Pres. Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for another term. Two major American figures were assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 and Robert Kennedy in June. There were riots that spring in over 100 cities in the U.S. In France, the protests of what came to be known as “May 1968” drove Pres. Charles de Gaulle to flee his country for a time. The Democratic Convention in Chicago that August—Hubert Humphrey was eventually the nominee—was marked by street battles pitting the Chicago police, who were pelted with rocks and chunks of concrete, against the Youth International Party and its sympathizers; the police used tear gas and beat protesters with billy clubs, while the Yippies, keenly aware of the presence of TV crews recording everything, chanted (accurately), “The whole world’s watching.”
In the November presidential election that year, the vote was split by George Wallace’s third-party run, a last-ditch effort by the old Confederacy (Wallace won five Southern states for the American Independent Party) to assert states’ rights and push back against federal Civil Rights policies. Richard Nixon won the presidency with a narrow plurality of votes over Humphrey but a clear victory in the Electoral College. Most people in my generation remember that, just a few years earlier, in 1962, Nixon had retired from politics with the bitter remark that the press “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
It was a vexed, contentious, violent time, and in December 1968, I was a high school senior with “notions,” as my grandmother put it—just liberal enough to worry my parents. The correction to my notions was what made Apollo 8 such a memorable event. All through the 1960s, my generation had been riveted by the space race started by Kennedy. Most of us watched every single launch from Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy), and this mission, as I was reminded by looking at recent YouTube footage of the astronauts involved, was very much part of the competition between the United States and Russia in those Cold War days. Instead of taking a year or 18 months to prepare for this mission to the moon, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders did it in four months to beat the Russians. But what they accomplished on Christmas Eve of 1968 was far more than political. Its effect was like the famous “Christmas truce” of 1914 when British and German troops came up from the trenches and met in No Man’s Land to trade food and sing Christmas hymns together.
Borman was the head of the mission, and as the capsule came around from the dark side of the moon, those of us watching television saw the earth, swirled with white and partly in shadow—the only color in that cosmic scene—rising above the lunar horizon, and Borman began to read the beginning of Genesis in the King James Version to everyone back on our planet as the Christmas gift from the astronauts. Skeptical though I was about religion (not to mention politics) at the time, I was awestruck. I remember the feeling fifty years later, not as a moment of victory in the space race, but as an opening of religious wonder on that Christmas Eve.
Such an event comes once in a generation—if we’re lucky. But wonder itself is not so rare, so hard to find. In fact, at Wyoming Catholic College, wonder is central to what we do. Without it, learning falters into fruitless labor. With it, classroom and liturgy and outdoors speak to each other, almost in a secret language. One of our alumni recently wrote, “As someone like Melville’s Ishmael who finds herself often with a ‘damp, drizzly November in my soul,’ activities like ice climbing in Colorado, rock climbing in Utah, and peak attempts in the Wind River grounded me in reality and ‘the great gates of the wonder world flung open.’” That’s what we love to see: the way our students find paradigms for their own experience in great books like Moby Dick and then share them, as this alumna now does with her own students. Let us pray that our success continues in this year to come. And may the “bent world,” as Hopkins puts it, rise anew in hope.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College (January 2019).
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