Ciara Reyes-Ton/Science for the Church: Advent Devotional: Lessons on Waiting from Dividing Cells

We continue our series of science-informed Christmas reflections with an Advent devotional by biologist, writer, singer-songwriter, and coffee lover, Ciara Reyes-Ton. Visit her website to learn more about her and her portfolio of faith and science writing. Enjoy!

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs 13:12, NIV).

It’s hard to wait, especially when you know something exciting and life-changing is just around the corner.

This year my husband and I welcomed our first baby. We couldn’t wait for his arrival, and so we were thrilled when he decided to come a little early. In the words from a Tennessee William’s play, “He (was) the long-delayed, but always expected something that we (were) living for,” at least for nine months.

We did our best to prepare for his arrival by enrolling in birthing classes, packing a hospital bag, and decorating the nursery, among other things. We preoccupied ourselves as much as we could but even so, grew more impatient as the days went on.

Because I was so focused on his arrival and, with my mind full of questions like, “Who will he look like? What will his personality be like? What will it feel like to hold him?” it was hard to celebrate each developmental milestone. Furthermore, the loss of a previous pregnancy had taught us to wait with more caution than hope, causing us to at times doubt whether we would ever hold him.

However, in the end, the wait, while lengthy and often uncomfortable, was all worth it the moment he arrived. The end of our waiting marked the beginning of a new adventure, and the moment our lives were forever changed.


Pause & Reflect

Think back on the last time you were waiting for something that would be particularly life-changing. What was it? How did you feel while you were waiting for it? Did the outcome make the wait worthwhile?


A cell’s life, much like our own, is characterized by moments of excitement and action and moments of monotony and waiting.

Like birth heralds our grand entrance into the world, cell division, specifically cytokinesis (the physical separation of one cell into two new ones), marks the beginning in the life of a cell.

Most normal healthy cells have a finite lifespan, dividing a limited number of times before they can no longer do so and eventually die. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule; for example, many cancerous cells have acquired mutations that make them immortal.

An actively dividing cell actually spends the majority of its life in a period of waiting and preparation called interphase, where it is getting ready to divide. During this time a cell grows in size, builds all the necessary machinery it will need to divide and replicates its DNA, the genetic material it needs to distribute to each daughter cell.

In this context, waiting is purposeful. It is more than a preoccupation with busyness to pass time. It provides an opportunity for preparation that promotes the fidelity of the process and ultimately safeguards the well-being of the entire organism.

Without proper preparation, a cell could attempt to divide prematurely and drastic consequences can result. For example, a cell may fail to divide altogether or may divide only to produce abnormal cells.

To protect against this, cells are programmed with a series of checkpoints to pause and evaluate if everything is on track, before proceeding and ultimately giving the green light to divide.

While it’s debatable as to whether cells find joy in the process of waiting, they certainly aren’t complaining, and the process is what actually makes the outcome possible.


Pause & Reflect

Watch this time lapse video of a dividing cell captured under a high-powered microscope. A typical cell in the human body takes approximately 24 hours to divide. About 95% of this time is spent in interphase, with the cell preparing to divide. Active cell division only takes about an hour. (Learn more here.) In the video the process is sped up. The DNA is labeled in red. The structures labeled in green help separate the DNA, partitioning it into the two new cells produced after cell division. Watch the dynamic rearrangements and movement happening inside the cell, followed by the cell physically pinching itself in half, going from one cell to two.


This year, as a first-time parent, I find myself connecting with the story of Christ’s birth in a different way. It’s a story about waiting. Parents waiting for their baby to reach every developmental milestone and reach full term before welcoming him into the world. Perhaps even wondering if they will ever hold their child. All of creation waiting for the arrival of the long-promised and prophesied Savior who would bring hope to a weary and anxiously waiting world.

But hope deferred makes the heart sick. I can only imagine hearing of a promise that I would never see in my own lifetime, and only hoping for it to be true. Or waiting impatiently, not knowing how close I was to one of the most exciting and life-changing events in human history.

A longing fulfilled is a tree of life. The moment he arrived, our world was forever changed. His birth gave purpose to the generations that had waited and paved the way for him, and renewed hope and life to those who would come long after.

May our periods of waiting be well spent and bring forth life. And may we, with humility, consider the wisdom hidden within God’s creation, no matter how small or microscopic the source.



...Just like our cells prepare at a molecular level for the climactic event of cell division, how can we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s birth and the promise of his return?
...What checkpoints can we implement into our lives this season to pause and examine the posture of our hearts so that we are ready to receive the greatest gift of all?
...What opportunities for spiritual growth and development can we take advantage of during this season of waiting to guard ourselves from a preoccupation with busyness?
...Whether we find ourselves in a period of deferred hope or fulfilled longing this season, what comfort and what joy does the story of Christ offer us?


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Strengthening the church through engaging with science

We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.