On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay fought through ice and snow, exhaustion and bitter cold, to stand together on the summit of Mt. Everest. I remember seeing their photos in National Geographic. They were dressed in heavy parkas, their eyes protected by dark goggles, and despite their weariness they were laughing, overjoyed at becoming the first humans to set foot on the world’s tallest peak, 29,028 feet above sea level. Before making their descent, they buried a small cross and some candy in the snow to prove that they’d been there.
It was like that, only more exhilarating.
On January 23, 1960, Lt. Don Walsh of the US Navy and oceanographer Jacques Piccard descended below the cold, dark surface of the Pacific in the bathyscaphe Trieste, down through the crushing depths to a place deeper than Mt. Everest is high. I remember studying photos of their tiny submarine in my second grade Weekly Reader and reading with astonishment about the crushing water pressure — 8 tons per square inch — at the bottom of the Challenger Deep, 35,813 feet below the surface. The pressure actually cracked their thick, Plexiglas viewing port, making the discovery of shrimp and flounder living on the bottom all the more amazing.
It was like that, only more dangerous.
On July 21, 1969, I sat glued to our TV set and watched a jerky, black and white image of astronaut Neil Armstrong carefully stepping from a ladder to become the first human being to walk on the surface of the moon. His teammate, Buzz Aldrin, followed and took photos of their footprints in the powdery lunar dust. After two and a half hours of collecting rocks, they unfurled an American flag and returned to the relative safety of their lunar module.
It was like that, only more – high-tech.
Two thousand and seven years ago, the infinite God ripped a hole in the dark curtain of finite space and stepped inside. The eternal and everlasting I AM took on a frail and disposable body. The creative genius who conceived of super-novas and sunsets, DNA and diamonds, proteins and pandas became a human embryo, then a child kicking and moving in his mother’s womb, a baby sucking at her breast, a young boy playing hide and seek with his brothers, a young man pushed below the muddy waters of the Jordan River, then raised up and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. He left his footprints on the dusty road to Jerusalem.
I heard about it in Sunday School.
God the explorer? God the adventurer? No. God became man not to prove something or set a record, not to claim new territories or gain new knowledge, but to show us the depth and width and height and heft of His love.
The most awesome feat of human exploration began long, long ago on a quiet Christmas morning in the unlikeliest of places, a Bethlehem stable lit by a star.
Merry Christmas, and peace to all men and women of good will.
Photo credit: The Christmas Tree cluster, NASA, Hubble Space Telescope