During pregnancy, some cells from the unborn child migrate through the placenta into the mother’s bloodstream. These cells are “pluripotent,” i.e., they are capable of developing into many types of tissue. If a cell like this finds its way into breast tissue, for example, it will mimic the cells around it and develop into a breast cell, staying there for the life of the mother.
“Mothers around the world say they feel like their children are still a part of them long after they’ve given birth,” said a recent Smithsonian Magazine article , “As it turns out, that is literally true. During pregnancy, cells from the fetus cross the placenta and enter the mother’s body, where they can become part of her tissues.”
It works the other way, too. Cells from the mother also cross the barrier. But these cells are not “pluripotent”; their life spans and possible influences are short-lived.
Evolutionary biologists are fascinated by the exchange, because they view it as a symbiosis that contributes to the “fitness” of both mother and child. Preliminary evidence suggests that fetal cells may stimulate milk production, help wounds to heal, and strengthen the mother’s immune system.
To call the system a “symbiosis” is to say that it’s not some kind of mistake, an illness, or a breakdown, that fetal cells find their way into the mother. Biologists would say that the mother-child system has “evolved” for their mutual benefit. Philosophy, or commonsense, would say that the exchange is part of God’s design for childbearing.
But let’s think of Mary’s pregnancy in this way. Jesus was “perfect God and perfect man,” like us in all ways except sin. Therefore, let us suppose that cells from the unborn Jesus migrated into Mary’s blood and lodged in various organs, where they took on the functions of those organs, and remained until Mary was assumed into Heaven. They were not Mary’s cells, but the cells of the Lord, alive within Mary’s body and playing the same function as Mary’s cells.
What, then, are the theological implications? (We mean, implications for us amateurs, that is, “lovers.”)
First, that traditional Church teaching, that Jesus had no brothers and sisters, because Joseph never had relations with Mary, becomes on its own overwhelmingly convincing. To a thoughtful person, the argument from fittingness always did make sense: Why would a man go where God had been, and claim for his purposes what had already been taken and reserved for divine purposes? But now Mary becomes the place where, in an important sense, God still is. It’s not that she was the Ark of the Covenant: it’s rather that she is and remains that, since traces of the body and blood of the Lord are within her.
Second, that traditional Church teaching, that Mary was free from original sin when Jesus was conceived within her, becomes even more strongly verified. Sin and God are simply not compatible. By her carrying Jesus, God was to become in an important sense present in the very fabric of her body. That presence seems incompatible with anything in her body geared towards sin, which original sin would imply.
A point of Catholic information: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception additionally holds that this freedom from original sin, which was conferred on Mary from the first moment of her existence. That she was free from original sin and its effects when she bore Jesus was never in dispute.
The old Catholic Encyclopedia states well the traditional argument for this immaculate conception : “There is an incongruity in the supposition that the flesh, from which the flesh of the Son of God was to be formed, should ever have belonged to one who was the slave of that arch-enemy, whose power He came on earth to destroy.” The modern discovery of fetal cells that remain in the mother adds biological support to the argument.
A third implication is that Mary becomes a permanent tabernacle, literally and not just figuratively. After all, the Litany of Loreto gives her this title: “Spiritual Vessel. Vessel of Honor. Singular Vessel of Devotion. . . .House of God. Ark of the Covenant.”
But perhaps when we say these words we think back in our imaginations to Mary as pregnant. We suppose that these words are true of her now, because they were once true – in the way, maybe, that a former President is called “Mr. President.”
True, in a pious heart, Mary’s role gets attributed to her eternally because her gift of self to the Christ in her fiat was so complete. But it seems that here, as in other areas of our faith, God is not content to leave things abstract but wishes to concretize spiritual realities. In accordance with the Incarnational Principle, the cells of the Lord that remained in Mary’s body would be a permanent, concrete sign of this role.
I sometimes wonder when I think of these things whether we don’t do damage to Christmas by our tendency to neglect the Epiphany, which is also to neglect Mary. Epiphany is the feast of appearance and revelation. But the Lord is revealed through his mother: she bears him; she brings him to light; she holds him; she continues to present him to us. “Thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed,” Simeon said to Mary (Lk 2:35).
Mary by her maternity is a vessel of honor, but not a mere vessel, and not a vessel long ago, to be discarded, but here and now, irreducibly and still the way to the Christ child.
*Image: Virgin of the Angels by William Bouguereau, 1881 [J. Paul Getty Museum , Los Angeles]