Soon we will be celebrating Thanksgiving in the U.S. Let’s give thanks today for something we seldom reflect on: the miracle of our own existence. I’ll begin by reviewing how you (and I) came to be. (I’m indebted to Fr. William O’Malley’s book The Wow Factor.)
The being you are was composed of two components who had never even met before: your mother’s ovum (egg) and your father’s sperm. (I know, I know, it might be hard to talk about your parents in terms of eggs and sperm, but let’s face it: your parents were young once and hopefully in love when they created you.)
Your mother had about 450 ova (eggs) in her ovaries. One day, about 9 months before you were born, one of your mother’s ovaries released an egg. It contained 23 chromosomes as it began its journey toward a Fallopian tube. Unbeknownst to this ovum, about 250 million sperm from your father (each also containing 23 chromosomes) were racing toward it at 28 mph, vying with each other to be the first to find it, enter it, and fertilize it. In your case, one sperm succeeded. Tada! (Often none succeed). Instantly a new creation came into being, one with 46 chromosomes and a unique DNA: you! (Tada!)
In the beginning, you were infinitesimally small. Despite this, you were soon carried down the Fallopian tube by tiny finger-like villi. O’Malley compares this transport to a person being carried over a crowd at a rock concert! Then you came to a ledge overlooking a huge cave, your mother’s womb. When you fell into that cave, you had a 50-50 chance of snagging onto the wall and embedding yourself. If you are reading this, you succeeded in snagging onto that wall. (Big Tada!)
Then the miracle of growth and development began in earnest. At 18 days or so, your heart began to beat. And it hasn’t stopped since (unless you had a heart attack, were put on a heart machine, or received a heart transplant). At seven weeks, you were the size of a blueberry. At eleven weeks you were hiccupping, kicking, and stretching while your fingerprints were formed. At fourteen weeks, you were sucking your favorite thumb. At nineteen weeks, you could hear your parents’ voices for the first time. At 24 weeks, you were pretty much formed but only the size of an ear of corn. At 27 weeks, you were sleeping and waking.
The last months in your mother’s womb, you were getting bigger and putting on body fat to prepare you for the world beyond the womb. And finally, about week forty, your mother’s contractions began, and you were ceremoniously pushed through the birth canal and into the delivery room with all its lights, sounds, smells, and chill. Someone announced your gender, made sure you were breathing, cut your cord, and perhaps gently placed you into the arms of your exhausted mother. If you are now relatively young, your father might have witnessed the birth or even coached your mother during the delivery. If you are old (like me) your Dad was probably out in the waiting room pacing.
What a miracle you are! As O’Malley writes, the whole marvelous you unfolded in the womb “gratuitously, with no cooperation or certainly no merit on your part. Wow! Thanks!”
Here are a few more facts:
1) What I described above, is an “ordinary” conception and birth. There are variables, of course: Multiple births, preemies, C-sections, births in a car or war zone, or babies entering the world damaged by their mother’s use of alcohol or drugs.
2) You have two parents, of course, and four grandparents. Each individual contributed to your genetic makeup: your bone structure, eye color, love for music, susceptibility to heart disease, distaste for beans. If you go back just ten generations, though, you have a whopping 1,024 great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents! And every single one of them was healthy enough and lived long enough to mate and produce a child!
3) Historically, royal births were often “public events.” When Marie Antoinette gave birth, there were 200 people in attendance. This was to make sure the baby was healthy and hers.
4) You and every other human being were once a single cell for about 30 minutes after conception.
5) Babies cry with an accent.
When reflecting on the miracle of our conception and birth, it seems appropriate to say a little prayer:
Creating God, we give you thanks for the miracle of our existence. We give thanks to our parents, grandparents, and distant ancestors who contributed to making us who we are. We pray for all parents and parents-to-be. Give them courage, wisdom, and love. We pray that all babies may be welcomed into our world and be tenderly cared for. And finally, may we use our precious gift of life to bring more life and love into our world. Amen.
What amazes you most about conception and birth?
Was there anything memorable about your conception and/or birth? (For example, I was conceived near Christmas. In February there was a big snowstorm. My mother shoveled part of our long driveway so my Dad could get into the driveway after work. She almost lost me, she said, but somehow I managed to stay in her womb until September. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this!)
Our “song” today is Psalm 139 recited by individuals who are wonderfully made. They remind us that we don’t have to be perfect to be precious.
I invite you to respond to this reflection, the questions, or the video below: