It should have been the greatest moment in his career—no, in his life. It should have made him a household name, a legendary hero that children would pretend to be and adults would point to as the mark of true success. It should’ve followed him long after death, a sort of golden haze around his name that would ensure his legacy outlasted his life.
His was a classic American work ethic, a prime example of an underdog comeback kid. His father ran a grocery store and gas station, and he grew up watching the daily grind wear on his family. Life was hard, and they of all people knew it, but they refused to let it destroy them. He seemed destined to face hardship head-on and overcome it. From college to law school to the Navy, he persisted. After trial and error, loss and disillusionment and regrouping, he finally made it. On January 20, 1969, Richard Nixon was sworn in as president of the United States.
Exactly six months later, the unthinkable happened.
Man, for the first time, stepped on the surface of the moon. Years of planning, agonizing, and dreaming of so many individuals from all walks of life had led to this—and he, Richard Nixon, was Commander in Chief of the nation that touched the stars.
In an emotional phone call, the President addressed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world...and as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this earth are truly one.”
We remember Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and (hopefully) Michael Collins as the crew members who brought the heavens within our reach. We celebrate scientific heroes like Katherine Johnson who made orbital space travel even possible and pioneers like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. But if you check his online biographies, you will not find one mention that Richard Nixon was president when humans left their footprints on the moon.
No, we remember Nixon alongside words like Watergate, resignation, and scandal. After his fall from grace, he spent the rest of his life quietly working to restore his tarnished image by giving back to the community as best he knew how.
There was red in his ledger, and no amount of former or latter good could balance it. Gone was the unity of July 20, 1969. The priceless moment had passed, and even the heavens had not saved him from a life of disgrace, shame, and regret. While redoubling his efforts to bring peace and tranquility, each moment taught him anew that even if the people on earth were indeed one, they would be united against him, not for him. His identity was no longer Commander in Chief, but disgraced ex-President.
This reality is more tragic than fiction, though we see this theme often in stories, TV, and films. In the 2012 Avengers movie, Agent Natasha Romanoff confronts the villain Loki about the status of her imprisoned friend, Agent Barton. After she references her reasons for wanting to free Barton and her past as a Russian spy, Loki asks her point blank, "What are you now?"
"It's really not that complicated,” she replies. “I got red in my ledger. I'd like to wipe it out."
Loki looks at her, seeing through her, and says, "Can you? Can you wipe out that much red?" In measured, calculating tones, he begins to list her resume of atrocities, concluding, "Your ledger is dripping, it's gushing red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality... you pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are part of you. And they will never go away."
Our ledgers are dripping and gushing red, too. And that is how we will be remembered.
The only sea of tranquility that can unite God and man and bring brotherhood among us is found in the Word and sacraments.
On Calvary, God the Father remembered. He remembered every sin that had ever been committed was being committed and would be committed—from Eve’s first taste of the fruit to the juicy gossip I passed along yesterday, Adam’s blame-shifting to the thoughts I would be mortified if anyone knew. The guilt I feel, the punishment I deserve, the pain of being hurt by those I love was meted out to Christ and ran in red droves down His pierced body. God remembered, and He rejected His Son. He killed the One who became every sin of thought, word, and deed of the entire human race. The blood of Christ covered the ultimate altar of the cross. His broken body mirrored the shattered Ten Commandments. His blood was deeper and richer and more alive than the blood of the sacrificial lambs that had been sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the covenant to cover the tablets of the Law encased inside.
The red in our ledgers is the blood of Christ, fully atoning for our sins, fully paying our debt. Because God the Father chose to forsake His Son, we will not be forgotten. “Their sins I will remember no more,” our God promises (Jeremiah 31:34), and for the sake of Christ, the omnipotent Ruler of the universe chooses to forget our sins of thought, word, and deed—not because they never existed, but because the wages of death has been paid in full to our Mediator, Jesus.
When humans bring the heavens down to earth, we always discover new and unexpected horrors disguised as beauty. Our idols of health, wealth, self, and countless others serve only to trick us with cheap imitations of the true glory we crave. The only sea of tranquility that can unite God and man and bring brotherhood among us is found in the Word and sacraments. Not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ did on our behalf has heaven been opened to us. The Incarnation, the full humanity of Christ, brought God down to us so that He could save us. In one priceless moment in the whole history of man, Christ arose victorious from the tomb. “Praise the One who breaks the darkness,” we sing, “Praise the One who makes us one.”
“Jesus, remember me,” the thief on the cross prayed, and so do we. For the sake of the Son, we will be remembered by God as one whose sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb, whose names are emblazoned on His palms and written in the Book of Life. Our legacy will never die, not because fleeting empires will remember us, or because history will forget our greatest sins, but because our Victor lives and reigns eternally—and because of Him, so will we.