An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
On Christmas Day, Fr. C asked me to offer the homily. Here is what I had written down prior to delivery.
Some would say I live two contradictory lives. By day I don a white lab coat and engage in modern scientific inquiry by the UV light of a fluorescent microscope. And on evenings and weekends I don a black cassock and engage in ancient religious rituals by the light of beeswax candles. The supposed dichotomy between religion and science is something I deal with on a daily basis…sometimes there is easy reconciliation and other times it can be more difficult. But very often I am able to find some interesting similarities between the work of science and the spiritual life.
I’d like to mention just one that I think corresponds quite nicely with the feast we celebrate today, but in order to explain it to you I need to give a little scientific background of what I’m working on in the lab…so bear with me:
We work primarily with Killer T-cells, which earn their name by killing cells that are infected or perhaps having other problems with the hopes of stopping the spread of whatever problem is happening. This works because T-cells have receptors on their cell surface that will bind to certain “antigens” that it recognizes as being foreign. An antigen can be anything like a small protein – a piece of virus for example. So, imagine I’m a sick cell. What I’ll do is take a piece of whatever is making me sick and bring it out on my surface - as if holding out the reason for my sickness and saying: “Help, I’m sick.” A T-Cell might come by and recognize this and put me out of my misery in order to stop the spread of the disease.
Cancer, however, usually escapes this system because there is often nothing for the T-Cell to recognize as being “foreign.” But, we seek to harness this system by changing our T-cells in order to recognize the cancer cells as being diseased and in need of being killed. We get the T-cells to express on their surface a new and unique antigen receptor that we design which will allow them to recognize the cancer cells. In order to get them to express this antigen receptor we have to get new genetic material into the cell. We accomplish this using a virus which we are able to design and produce. This virus is very built from portions of HIV and behaves just like HIV which as most of us know is very fond of T-Cells. There is a bit of cosmic irony in that if we’d never discovered the horrific HIV, we might never have been able to harvest this technology which has a great deal of promise to end the scourge of cancer. Ponder that one in your free time. Anyway, this virus goes into the T-cell and its genetic material (our “package”) is incorporated it into and becomes ONE with the natural genetic material of the T-cell. The T-cell will then use that DNA like any other part of its DNA and produce the antigen receptor we designed on its surface. This T-Cell is now changed…it is locked and loaded, ready to start killing cancer cells.
Now, you might consider saying that we are “infecting” these T-cells, but really infection has such a negative connotation because it implies that the virus replicates like wildfire and consequently kills the cells causing disease. On the contrary, our viruses are unable to reproduce and we anticipate (and have shown so experimentally) that they will have a powerful therapeutic effect. Therefore, the scientific community does not use the term infection, and instead has preferred to describe this process as TRANSDUCTION. And so we would say that these newly changed T-cells that are ready to take on Cancer have been “TRANSDUCED.”
One day recently I was walking down from the lab to catch the ferry and I saw a sign in a storefront that read: “Catch the Christmas Spirit.” Now, from the perspective of my field of interest, I of course, immediately thought of a viral infection…..sorry I can’t help it. But a few moments later I did ponder: What does the sign really mean? Of course, I think, catching the Christmas Spirit means that I’m going to shop at that store! ….But there can also be a Christian message in it as well, no?
Oh sure we could simply say here that this message means that amidst all the hustle and bustle of this holiday season we should take the time to rest our hearts and minds in order to remember the real meaning of the season. We should remember the “reason for the season.” Yes, we must remember…but I’m going to go a tad further: remembering is simply NOT enough. Now you’ll recall I initially thought about viruses when I saw the sign, and then I considered a more profound Christian meaning….well yes those two were destined to collide in my crazy head.
When we transduce our T-cells, we expose hundreds of thousands of them to hundreds of thousands of viruses, but not all of them end up being transduced and we know this because they never express on their outside, the receptor that will allow them to recognize the cancer – in other words, some are unchanged. Others will express the antigen receptor for a few days, but then lose it – we call this a transient transduction – it doesn’t stick. These were all exposed to the virus, but not transduced….they didn’t catch it…they missed it. You might say: The seed fell on poor soil. Sound familiar? Remembering isn’t enough as surely as simply being exposed to the “Spirit of Christmas” isn’t enough.
In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul wrote: “Be ye TRANSFORMED by the RENEWING of your mind…” he did NOT write: “Be ye remembering”…but “Be ye TRANSFORMED.”
How does this transformation and renewing happen? What did our epistle today say: “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” Do you see? He sends forth the Spirit INTO our hearts! And, indeed, what do we perpetually ask of the Holy Spirit? “Come and abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity…”
The feast of Christmas is of course the feast of our Lord’s Incarnation in which He integrated Himself and became ONE with our human nature in order to save the world from sin. And indeed His Incarnation precedes and makes possible what we heard in the epistle: the sending forth His Spirit into our hearts and lives, to CHANGE us, to TRANSFORM us, to RENEW us….to “TRANSDUCE” us?
Now, there are three important areas where the similarities of transduction and Christian transformation depart from one another:
First, the T-cells, of course, have no say in the matter of their transduction. Quite the opposite for us and our transformation. We must desire and ask for this infilling of the Spirit, we are not inanimate in the process; we must participate.
Second, with God it’s not a one shot deal. In transduction we do not make any second attempts and instead discard any cells that are not transduced on the first attempt. But God’s love for us has Him ever seeking our openness to Him. And it’s never too late. We say that wonderful prayer over and over again, asking the Holy Spirit to “come and abide in us” because it’s NOT a one shot deal. It’s an ongoing process.
Finally, our “Adoptive T-Cell Therapy”, even if wildly successful will not cure everyone who undergoes it. And even those who are cured we know that we have only delayed death in the end. Again, quite the opposite with God’s “therapy.” It is tried and true and requires no FDA approval. The data is in and the babe in the manger and a risen Lord is the evidence of our salvation and the conquering of death. We need only submit ourselves to His “therapy.”
So yes! Catch the Christmas Spirit…and may it infect us…ahem…TRANSDUCE us thoroughly and change us. And may this transformation be evidenced by the expression (like the antigen receptors on our T-cells), by the expression of life-bearing fruit that overcomes the cancer of sins in our lives and in the world around us. Be ye Transduced…that’s what it means to “Catch the Christmas Spirit.” That we walk away changed. One or two steps further along in our journey towards Him.