The DNA of Christmas

dnaThe double helix of DNA stores and passes down through generations all the genetic information necessary for carbon based life forms on this green and blue planet.  DNA diagrams look like counterclockwise corkscrewed ladders.  The models help us to understand how this wondrous alchemy works, but they are simplified.  Inside each nucleus, the DNA coils tightly in and upon itself.

These long molecules recreate through ‘messenger’ molecules the amino acids that build all the proteins of which our bodies consist.  Each connecting rung of the ladder bonds in one of two combinations of four smaller molecules called nucleic bases. When DNA molecules ‘unzip’, separating at the nucleic bases, each half regenerates into an exact replica of the original.  This self replication is what makes possible all life to continue, and such an unzipping and reforming occurs within the human body thousands of times a second.

 “The DNA in just one cell can stretch six feet long – yet it fits into a nucleus around a thousandth of an inch wide.  And since we have trillions of cells, all the DNA in one human body can stretch roughly from the sun to Pluto and back.”  The Violinist’s Thumb: Love, War and Genius as Written by our Genetic Code, Sam Kean

Mitochondria are tiny bean shaped organs that supply energy within our cells. [1]  Curiously, they have their own DNA. Science theorizes that they were bacteria or viruses ‘eaten’ by other primitive cells eons ago and evolved in a symbiotic relationship. Mitochondrial DNA is most useful, because sperm from those of us who are male are primarily DNA carriers that swim with tails; they are too tiny to contain mitochondria.  Hence, all mitochondria and its DNA are passed on solely through the mother.  Since this DNA is stable and reliable, it mutates on average only once every 3,500 years or so.  This remarkable characteristic has enabled biochemists to analyze mitochondrial DNA common to human beings alive today and trace it back to a single source — the first “Eve.”  She lived in Africa approximately 170,000 years ago.  The name “Eve” comes from the Hebrew word, HAWAH, a verb which means “to live.”

And so we come to Christmas.

”For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Psalm 139, 13-14

The early Church fathers in the first two centuries after the apostles wrote extensively of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a New Eve. Ireneus, Justin and Tertullian, followed by Jerome and Ambrose develop the Eve-Mary parallel.  Jesus is described as the New Adam.  “It was through a man and woman that flesh was cast from paradise; it was through a virgin that flesh was linked to God.” (St. Ambrose).  “Death through Eve.  Life through Mary.” (St. Jerome)  They taught that just as the pride, lies and disobedience of Adam and Eve (and all human beings) opened the breach between God and man, the humility, truth and obedience of first Mary, and then ultimately, perfectly her Son, bridged it.

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. John 26-27.  Mary became mother of John and of the Church, and spiritually, the mother of us all.  The “disciple took her into his home”; when Mary comes into our home, she does what she always does, she brings Jesus to us and us to Jesus.

“Answer quickly, O Virgin.  Reply in haste to the angel…Why do you delay, why are you afraid? … Let humility be bold… In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous… Arise, hasten, open… ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord’, she says, ‘be it done to me according to your word.’”.  Saint Bernard

So as we hasten and worry, as we fret and rush about, we, too, are given the opportunity as Mary was to “be not afraid.”  Christmas is not department stores open a hundred straight hours until late Christmas Eve.  Christmas is not maxing out the credit cards in a futile bargain to please others or to please ourselves.  Where do we find our solace?  Where is peace?  How do we reflect on the miracle and the bridge between Creator and creature, born twenty centuries ago in such humble circumstances?  “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

“There are those who pour out gold from a purse and weigh out silver on the scales; then they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god before which they fall down in worship.  They lift it to their shoulders to carry; when they set it in place again, it stays, and does not move from the spot.  Although they cry out to it, it cannot answer; it delivers no one from distress.” Isaiah 46

Our DNA determines much about us and each mix is unique in all of history, but it does not determine ‘us.’  Our DNA is ephemeral; our soul is immortal.  We are determined in our soul by our will and by our decisions.  Not just at Christmas time, but by the slow aggregation of our daily decisions throughout our life.  We can fall into an “idolatry of disbelief.”[2] We become to a great degree that which we choose to become.  And through our Creator’s great mercy, we have a new opportunity today and every day to become new, to begin again.  That is the Good News of Christmas.

“Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb.  He dwells until the end of ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith.  He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul.” Blessed Isaac of Stella, abbot.


[1] Chloroplasts are analogous tiny organs in plant cells with their own DNA. In them, the hard work of photosynthesis takes place that captures the sun’s energy and is a necessary first step for all life.

[2] Article in Crisis Magazine by Regis Martin.

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