Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface.
My parents watched the live television broadcast of the landing, hosted by veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite, in mute wonder. As a three-year-old, however, I was more concerned with acquiring the cookies that were sitting just out of my reach on the coffee table. The astronauts landed close to 11 o’clock at night, so I was also getting cranky due to a delayed bedtime.
For those reasons, I can’t say that I actually remember this milestone in human history. However, I vividly recall an expression inspired by the lunar missions, one that was widely used in our household and in the culture of the time: “They can land a man on the moon, but they can’t …” — a phrase concluded by naming an activity that was either simpler, or more urgent, than space travel.
A state official was one of the first to go on record with the complaint. Some seven years before the moon landing, with President Kennedy’s 1962 declaration “we choose to go to the moon” ringing in the nation’s ears, Montana agriculture commissioner Lowell Purdy complained that federal farm policy would produce wasted wheat. “Nothing is impossible in this age of miracles,” he said. “If we can put a man on the moon, we surely are capable of seeing that our temporary surplus agricultural products are placed in many hungry stomachs of the world.”
Purdy called out what to him, and indeed to many, seemed to be not a lack of knowledge or skill, but a failure in priorities. In essence, he wanted to know why we were looking up to the heavens at the expense of looking into the eyes of our fellow human beings and meeting their needs.
A glance at the headlines on any given day confirms that the priorities of this world are (and have long been) muddled at best and warped at worst. An estimated 45% of global wealth is held by just 1% of the planet’s population. We build billion-dollar sports complexes in which millionaire athletes play, while our city’s children attend school in blighted buildings filled with mold and vermin — a condition their underpaid teachers (who purchase educational materials from their own salaries) are powerless to remedy.
We decry gun violence, yet we flock to play Fortnite and other games in which simulated assault rifles provide what passes for entertainment.
We keep up with the Kardashians, but not with the surging numbers of those endangered and marginalized by systemic poverty, conflict and oppression.
Amid such confusion, every evening the Church recalls the true priorities of the kingdom of God by reciting the Magnificat — the canticle proclaimed by Mary in Luke 1:46-55, and named for the Latin translation of its first word.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” cries the Nazarene peasant girl, pregnant with a hidden Savior who, through his death and resurrection, would reorder creation itself.
As the body of Christ recites these words during Vespers, a beautiful balance is restored. The proud are scattered in their conceit; the mighty are cast down from their thrones. The lowly are raised up, and the hungry are filled with good things. Mercy is shown to those who fear the Lord.
Perhaps it’s no mistake that this prayer is intoned as the sun fades and the moon rises. In that lesser light’s pale beams, the fruit and failure of our daily strivings become clearer, and we reflect on what is most important to us.
Nazareth and NASA were light years apart, but it was in a first-century village, not an aeronautics complex, that the true path to the stars was revealed. Only by ordering our days and our hearts aright, according to God’s priorities, can we hope to take flight while remaining properly grounded.
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