“Spirit of Apollo” Makes Good Alternative Holiday Viewing

If you are looking for alternative holiday viewing, you might consider the hour-long “Spirit of Apollo” program organized by the National Air and Space Museum and held at the Washington National Cathedral earlier this month. It is available on YouTube (click here)or on the Smithsonian website, where you will also find the printed program for the event.

The event commemorates Apollo 8, the first trip humans made to lunar orbit. It particularly remembers its most famous moment, the broadcast made by the astronauts on Christmas Eve 1968 in which they read to the world the creation account in the first 8 verses of Genesis. Also central is the “Earthrise” photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders. Its effect on human perceptions of the Earth was aptly summarized by Anders, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Jack Jenkins provided a fine report of the newsworthy aspects of the evening for Religion News Service. Here I’ll offer a few additional reflections. The program is an intriguing mix of the historical, the spiritual, the technical, and the artistic. A short documentary film and an address by James Lovell, one of the Apollo 8 astronauts, provides the inspiring historical story. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church who impressed the world with his sermon at the royal wedding in May, provided a stirring sermon-like address. Curry framed the evening as one of “re-consecration and dedication.” He strongly emphasized the need to draw on the wisdom of science to address the challenge of global warming, saying we need to act now “to save this oasis, our island home.”

“Our island home” was an allusion to the phrase by which Apollo’s images of Earth entered into Episcopal liturgy. In one of the eucharistic prayers included in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, God is addressed saying,

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.

Eucharistic Prayer C, The Holy Eucharist Rite II, The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church, 1979).

Dean Randolph Hollerith also channeled this prayer in his welcome at the beginning of the evening when he mentioned the “images of our small and fragile world.” Howard Galley wrote the prayer in the summer of 1969 as he and the rest of the world watched Apollo 11 land on the moon. Apollo’s images of Earth were very much on his mind. While the prayer is often called the “Star Trek” prayer because of this phrase, it might be better called the “Apollo” or “NASA” prayer.

The most technical, or practical address of the evening came from the NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine. He presented the president’s space policy of returning to the moon and using it as a base for further voyages to Mars. This would be possible because the moon has water ice. Since water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, that means rocket fuel.

Curiously, in driving this point home, Administrator Bridenstine returned three times to the “firmament” which Genesis 1 states God created to separate the waters from the waters. We now know, Bridenstine emphasized, what the Apollo astronauts did not when they read the Bible. We know that there is water not only on earth, but on the moon. Defining firmament as “empty space,” he emphasized that the Bible’s words about water above the firmament had “very really meaning, and that NASA is now following the water so that we can make new discoveries.”

“Firmament” is the word the translators of the King James Bible used to translate rāqîa. Many more recent translations have preferred “dome.” Firmament is an anglicanization of the Latin firmamentum, which is related to the English firm. The key thing about the rāqîa in the cosmology of the Ancient Near East is that it is a physical boundary that can separate water. Thus it allows ordered life on earth to exist amid the watery chaos of the universe. Administrator Bridenstine’s glossing it as “empty space,” reconciles it with modern science. Some popular translations such as the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version perform this reconciliation in the text itself by using the word “expanse” which suggests to most ears distance, rather than boundary. Bridenstine’s main point of course was that water which is on earth is also elsewhere, a point the ancient world view took as a given.

“Firmament” is also the title given to the choral and visual presentation near the beginning of the program where the audio of the astronaut’s broadcasts from Apollo 8 is framed by ethereal music supplied by the cathedral’s choir. The work begins with an animated visual of the cathedral’s space window in which a piece of the moon is enshrined. This sets the astronauts words, not only their reading of Genesis, but all their broadcasts as a kind of civic sacred text encapsulating “The Spirit of Apollo.”

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