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By 
Ciara Reyes-Ton
 on December 06, 2022

Cells, Waiting and the Birth of Christ

A cell’s life is very much like our own, characterized by moments of excitement, action and waiting. But cells may have the upper hand on us when it comes to waiting well.

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This is an excerpt from the new science and faith devotional book “Look Closely: The Life of Christ, from Dividing Cells to Resurrecting Corals.” I was commissioned to write this book by Science for the Church, a non-profit organization that empowers and equips the church to engage in various science topics. The book explores the life of Christ by bringing scripture into conversation with science, from dividing cells, to water walking lizards and resurrecting corals. It is my sincere hope to help others see that considering science alongside scripture can be awe-inspiring, wonder-inducing and lead to deeper worship of God our Creator.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” —Proverbs 13:12

 

It’s hard to wait, especially when you know something exciting and life-changing is just around the corner. Last year, my husband and I welcomed our first baby. We couldn’t wait for his arrival, and so we were thrilled when he decided to come a little early. In the words from a Tennessee William’s play, “He (was) the long-delayed but always expected something that we (were) living for,” at least for nine months. We did our best to prepare for his arrival by enrolling in birthing classes, packing a hospital bag, and decorating the nursery, among other things. We preoccupied ourselves as much as we could but, even so, grew more impatient as the days went on.

Because I was so focused on his arrival and, with my mind full of questions like, “Who will he look like? What will his personality be like? What will it feel like to hold him?” it was hard to celebrate each developmental milestone. Furthermore, the loss of a previous pregnancy had taught us to wait with more caution than hope, causing us to at times doubt whether we would ever hold him.

However, in the end, the wait, while lengthy and often uncomfortable, was all worth it the moment he arrived. The end of our waiting marked the beginning of a new adventure, and the moment our lives were forever changed.

Pause and Reflect

Author and her husband embracing their son

The author and her husband embracing their son months after his birth. photo credit: Allie Granzo

Think back on the last time you were waiting for something that would be particularly life changing. What was it? How did you feel while you were waiting for it? Did the outcome make the wait worthwhile?

 

Cells, birth and waiting

A cell’s life, much like our own, is characterized by moments of excitement and action and moments of monotony and waiting. Like birth heralds our grand entrance into the world, cell division, specifically cytokinesis (the physical separation of one cell into two new ones), marks the beginning in the life of a cell. Most normal healthy cells have a finite lifespan, dividing a limited number of times before they can no longer do so and eventually die. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule; for example, many cancerous cells have acquired mutations that make them immortal, allowing them to divide indefinitely.

An actively dividing cell actually spends the majority of its life in a period of waiting and preparation called “interphase,” where it is getting ready to divide. During this time a cell grows, builds all the necessary machinery it will need to divide, and replicates its DNA—the genetic material it needs to distribute to each daughter cell. In this context, waiting is purposeful. It is more than a preoccupation with busyness to pass time. It provides an opportunity for preparation that promotes the fidelity of the process and ultimately safeguards the well-being of the entire organism.

Without proper preparation, a cell could attempt to divide prematurely, and drastic consequences can result. For example, a cell may fail to divide altogether or may divide only to produce abnormal cells. To protect against this, cells are programmed with a series of checkpoints to pause and evaluate if everything is on track, before proceeding and ultimately giving the green light to divide. While it’s debatable as to whether cells find joy in the process of waiting, they certainly aren’t complaining, and the process is what makes the outcome even possible.

Pause and Reflect

Watch this time lapse video of a dividing cell captured under a high-powered microscope. A typical cell in the human body takes about 24 hours to divide. About 95 percent of this time is spent in interphase with the cell preparing to divide. Active cell division only takes about an hour. In the video, the process is sped up. The DNA is labeled in red. The structures labeled in green help separate the DNA, partitioning it into the two new cells produced after cell division. Watch the dynamic rearrangements and movement happening inside the cell, followed by the cell physically pinching itself in half, going from one cell to two.

Hope for a weary and waiting world

As a first-time parent, I find myself connecting with the story of Christ’s birth in a different way. It’s a story all about waiting. Parents waiting for their baby to reach every developmental milestone and reach full term before welcoming him into the world. Perhaps even wondering if they will ever hold their child. All of creation waiting for the arrival of the long-promised and prophesied Savior who would bring hope to a weary and anxiously waiting world.

But hope deferred makes the heart sick. I can only imagine hearing of a promise that I would never see in my own lifetime—and only hoping for it to be true—or waiting impatiently, not knowing how close I was to one of the most exciting and life-changing events in human history. Generations of Israelites awaited the promise of the Messiah. A long history of waiting preceeded his arrival. From Moses guiding the Israelites to a Promised Land that not everyone reached, to Abram and Sarai being promised a star-studded night sky’s worth of descendants they never saw. But each promise prophesied brought humanity closer to the ultimate fulfillment.

A longing fulfilled is a tree of life. The moment Jesus Christ arrived our world was forever changed. His birth gave purpose to the generations that had waited and paved the way for him and renewed hope and life to those who would come long after

For me, the story of Simeon seeing Christ as a child (Luke 2:25-35), embodies just how life giving and hopeful a longing fulfilled is. After waiting to see the Messiah he had heard prophesied about his whole life, he finally embraces him in his arms and exclaims: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

May our periods of waiting be well spent and bring forth life. And may we, with humility, consider the wisdom hidden within God’s creation, no matter how small or microscopic the source.

May our periods of waiting be well spent and bring forth life. And may we, with humility, consider the wisdom hidden within God’s creation, no matter how small or microscopic the source.

Reflection Questions:

  • Just like our cells prepare at a molecular level for the climactic event of cell division, how can we prepare
    ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s birth and the promise of his return?
  • What checkpoints can we implement into our lives to pause and examine the posture of our hearts so that we are ready to receive the greatest gift of all?
  • What opportunities for spiritual growth and development can we take advantage of during seasons of waiting to guard ourselves from a preoccupation with busyness?
  • Whether we find ourselves in a period of deferred hope or fulfilled longing, what comfort and what joy does the birth of Christ offer us?
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About the author

Ciara Reyes-Ton

Ciara Reyes-Ton

Ciara Reyes-Ton is a biologist, science writer and editor who is passionate about science communication to faith communities. She has a Ph.D. in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, and a B.S. in Biology from Valparaiso University. She has served as Managing Editor for the American Scientific Affiliation’s God & Nature Magazine, and previously taught Biology at Belmont University and Nashville State Community College. She is currently the Digital Content Editor for BioLogos and an Adjunct Professor at Lipscomb University. Outside science, she enjoys singing as part of her band Mount Carmell and drinking coffee. She recently released a new single "To Become Human," a song that explores the biology and theology of what it means to be human. She is also the author of "Look Closely," a science and faith devotional that explores the life of Christ by bringing scripture in conversation with science, from water walking lizards to dividing cells and resurrecting corals.