I confess. Before last week, I had never thought much about Biophysics, Cellular or Molecular Biology, or Embryology. As only God could time it, I got to hear some amazing teaching from an expert in those fields (Dr. Jeff Hardin, Hardin Lab, University of Wisconsin-Madison) — last week — right before Christmas. What I learned about Embryology gave a new kind of concrete meaning to what John’s gospel says of Jesus — “The Word became flesh…” (John 1:14)
To grasp the magnitude of this, the first step is understanding that “The Word” refers to Jesus. This phrase is really a picture of relationship, the relationship between God the Father and God the Son (Jesus). (Yes, there are “three persons or divine entities” in the one true God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — but we’ll get to the Holy Spirit shortly. Incidentally, all three — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — are all equally God and work in perfect unity with each other. They really are One God in three persons. This may be old news if you’re familiar with God and the Bible. If you’re not, it may be a brain stretch. (It is for everyone and I didn’t want to leave anyone out.) So…Jesus is called The Word because He “goes out from” the Father.
Consider the biblical account of creation. All three “divine people” of the One true God were involved. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis1:3) God the Father spoke. Words went forth from Him. At that point, Jesus did not yet have a human body; He gets that later. The One we call Jesus was in the Words that went forth from the Father. Where was the Holy Spirit? Genesis 1:2 says, “…the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Jesus is God and Jesus is The Word that goes forth from God the Father.
So how did Jesus, The Word, who had no human form until that first Christmas “become flesh”? Well, that how is the WOW where Embryology comes in. Jesus could have just appeared on earth from Heaven as a man, taught us how to live, and then died on the cross. Instead, He chose to relate to the nitty gritty of who we are. The same voice of God the Father that spoke all light and life into being at creation spoke life into being within Mary, Jesus’ human mother, who had never had any physical relationship with a man. It is that point for Jesus that God the Father’s process for how a human embryo develops kicked in.
Now forgive me, I am not going to do this justice or use all the correct scientificky words like the expert did last week, but I hope I can share enough of the process to amaze your Christmas socks off. Once Mary agreed to God’s plan of carrying baby Jesus (God is a gentleman, after all) and God the Father declared that there would be life within Mary, then somehow there was a fertilized ovum or egg within Mary called a zygote.
A zygote, the starting point, is a single cell in which God has packed all the DNA information necessary to develop into a human baby. Let that sink in. So that single cell starts dividing. One becomes two. Two become four. Four become eight and on and on. According to a website by a Cambridge University scientist, it takes about 41 divisions to produce the 2 trillion-ish cells that make up a human baby…in our case, the baby Jesus. But the process doesn’t involve just random multiplication and division. God ordains that, to actually get a human baby, specific cell movements and stages and reshaping must take place in just the right order.
The process continues, forming something called a “blastocyst.” At about 100 cells, an area of fluid forms and a specific set of cells called the “inner cell mass” (from which the baby’s delicate fingers, toes, heart, brain, etc. develop) moves to one end of the fluid; cells for the placenta and nourishment move to the other end of the fluid. In explaining these processes, Dr. Hardin emphasized their inherent intentionality; the cells are moving around and actually building the embryo…knitting the baby together in the mother’s womb as the Bible tells us in Psalm 139:13.
Next comes a process called “gastrulation” where the blastocyst changes to have 3 layers, each one primed to develop into a different kind of tissue. This is followed by “neurulation” during which something called the neural tube forms, the foundation of the baby’s nervous system. Next comes “organogenesis,” the beginning of the baby’s heart, kidneys, and other internal organs.
Zygote. Blastocyst. Gastrulation. Neurulation. Organogenesis. Intricate. Astounding. Miraculous for any human baby. How much more miraculous to consider that The Word became flesh. Jesus, present at creation — never before bound by limitations of space — humbled Himself to be carried in a human body, in order to be “clothed” in His own human body.
Jesus became flesh to convey the depth of His love. He became flesh to convey that He values you and me and every human at every stage. And He demonstrated the ultimate expression of His unconditional love when the same flesh that was knit together in Mary’s womb hung on the cross for us 30 years later. Jesus wanted us to know that He intimately related to our human condition. He did not skip any part of the human experience, except that He never rebelled against God the Father. Jesus never sinned so that on the cross, He could die our death, pay the penalty for our sins, and open the way to life forever with Him.
Jesus — The Word — became flesh.
In doing so, He gave us abundant life in the flesh, and made possible eternal life beyond the flesh.
May you feel valued and loved in a whole new way during this holy season.
Happy Advent. Merry Christmas.