‘God bless all of you … on the good earth.’

On Dec. 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to leave orbit and see the earth as a whole planet. They launched on Dec. 21 and traveled three days before circling the moon 10 times. NASA coordinated a live broadcast from the shuttle on Christmas Eve, and the men were instructed: “Say something appropriate.”

What would their message be? Millions would be listening, from many faith backgrounds, so saying something appropriate was challenging. The astronauts asked friends and media professionals for guidance, but no one knew what to say. Finally, someone offered the solution: why not read from the Book of Genesis? This was a good choice since Jews, Muslims and Christians all consider the Book of Genesis to be holy.

So the broadcast began with the crew showing the first images of earth from space. Then Anders revealed that the crew had a special message for all the people of the planet.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth … and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” They read the first 10 verses of Genesis and closed with the words, “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the good earth.” Half a billion people tuned in, the largest TV audience ever at that time.

Even before recorded history, men and women have listened for a voice from the heavens. They cry out to hear some word, some evidence that God exists and that God cares. Even the most cynical or skeptical, when the moment of crisis comes, find themselves crying out “Help!” to the sky, in spite of their belief that no one is listening.

A favorite scripture during the Christmas season comes from the prophet Isaiah: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence … to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2)

Isaiah envisioned a wrathful, fear-inspiring God to shake the earth, but instead a little child was born in a quiet stable. Except among a few shepherds, angels and wise men, there was little fanfare. Jesus indeed would shake the earth, but through a message of good news to the poor, by welcoming the outcast and finally by dying on a cross. He was rarely considered appropriate.

Even so, the gospel writer John (in 1:1) states that he was God’s word from the heavens: “In the beginning was the Word of God, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus was God’s word spoken barely above a whisper, but one that still echoes across generations and millennia.

This holiday season, as we strain to hear a heavenly voice, or perhaps just a kind word from one another, may all of us on the good earth be blessed.