“Moms must be many in one.” That’s how Jena Pincott ends her article on fetal cells (Our Selves, Other Cells). She’s talking about a phenomena called microchimerism, named for the mythic beast that is made up of many different animals, usually depicted as having three heads, one a goat’s, one a dragon’s, and one a lion’s. Our very bodies are like these chimera because we have the actual cells of our mothers, and maybe our siblings, inside of us. My body isn’t made up of just my cells. My mother’s cells and my older brother’s cells are floating around in it.
How does this happen? It all takes place in the womb. While we’re in utero, our cells move out of our bodies and through the placenta into our mother’s bodies. And our mother’s cells move out of their bodies and through the placenta and into our bodies. And not just a few cells. A lot of them. Almost one in every one hundred cells in a fetus comes from its mother. And during the second and third trimesters one in every thousand cells in a mother’s body comes from her baby. When a baby is born, those numbers decrease, but the cells that have passed from a mother to a baby and vice versa never entirely go away. There are always some in our bodies, for all of our lives.
And they do things. These cells, known as fetal cells, are foreign bodies inside of us, which means that our immune systems are inclined to attack them. Because our immune systems are on high alert, tracking down these foreign cells, our bodies are more likely to notice other intrusions and problems. So women who have their children’s cells in their bodies are less likely to have breast cancer. Some of the fetal cells in a mother’s body are stem cells, which can change into different types of cells through a process called morphing. Which means that they can become liver cells, heart cells, or brain cells. Robert Krulwich reports on a woman with hepatitis who refused hospital care, but the fetal stem cells inside her body clustered in her liver and repaired it regardless. However, it’s not all good news. Fetal cells have been linked to autoimmune diseases like lupus and scleroderma. Remember that they put a mother’s immune system on high alert. Sometimes it over functions and begins attacking everything, both the fetal cells and her very own cells, produced by her own body.
In other words, we are linked to our mothers on a cellular level, for good and for ill. And not just to our mothers. When cells are slipping through the placenta from mother to child, some of the cells that slip through are fetal cells from an older sibling. Your brother and sister leaves fetal cells in your mother’s body, and then they slip into your body when you’re in the womb. And of course, all these fetal cells contain both the mother and father’s DNA, which means that they carry part of the father’s genetic make-up into the mother and leave it there for years and years (a lovely idea for couples who are happy together, a terrible thought for people who have gone through traumatic divorces).
All of us, then, are chimeras. We have the cells of several people inside of us. Our connection to each other is more than hereditary, and more than emotional – it’s cellular. And, being a priest, I can’t help think of this as a powerful metaphor for Christ.
What is true physically is true spiritually. Christians believe that we are each connected to Christ. This relationship with Christ is the foremost relationship in our lives. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. That’s what Jesus means when he says that we are to abide in him. We are to understand that the seat of our being is in God. And we are to carry God into the world, as if God’s cells were dwelling in our very bodies.
But the Christian metaphor far outstrips the scientific fact. Through God we’re not just connected to our siblings and our mothers. Through God, we’re connected to everyone who abides in God. Think of God as the great womb of all existence. Our cells flow from that womb into existence, and the cells of all of accumulated existence flow back into us. Spiritually, of course. So the personhood, the existence, of a Palestinian Christian in Jerusalem is inside me at this very moment, just as my existence is within that person, and we are both within the personhood of a Chinese Christian in Beijing. This is what it means to be the body of Christ.
Of course, this lays certain responsibilities upon us. We are supposed to love one another, to love that Palestinian child, to love that old Chinese woman. And you can’t love people whom you ignore, or willfully know nothing about. Our task is to always try to see across the waters, to pray for and seek to help our brothers and sisters all over the world. Because we are profoundly, deeply connected to them. As connected to them spiritually as we are connected cellularly to our own mothers.