I have two questions. Was John the Baptist born without original sin? I don’t understand how a man with sin on his soul could baptize the Son of God. And my second question relates to the Virgin Mary. Did she die? Since death is a punishment for sin and she was never tainted by sin, why would she have died?
– S.S., CONNECTICUT
No, John the Baptist was not born free of original sin. Neither, though, was the Baptism of Jesus the sacramental rite that you experienced and are undoubtedly thinking of as you formulate your question. The Baptism of Jesus by John had nothing to do with a release from sin.
The Baptism that John administered was a formal induction into the Jewish faith community. It was for Jesus a messianic consecration — an anointing — revealing his divine mission. The Father, through John, did the anointing. The Son, Jesus, was anointed. And the Holy Spirit, as an early Christian writer put it, “is the anointing.”
As you will read in St. Peter’s speech, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles 10:36-38, “You know the word that [God] sent to the Israelites as He proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the Baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” This was a consecration, a “missioning” of Jesus as Messiah.
To the extent that you are thinking of Baptism as we know it when you raise this question, there is an implied belief that the minister of the sacrament must be free of sin for the sacrament to be valid. That, of course, is not the case. One in need of forgiveness can still administer the sacraments of forgiveness, because it is the action of God, not the minister, that affects what the sacrament signifies.
Your second question is one that has prompted theological speculation for centuries, but has not yet been answered in any definitive way. Some refer to the “blink” of death as Mary left this Earth and was assumed into heaven. Eastern Catholic liturgies refer to the “dormition” (“falling asleep”) of Mary. Th e Roman Church and Latin rites celebrate the Assumption but are silent on the question of whether she did in fact die, as we know death.
You speak generally of death as “punishment for sin,” but plants and animals die, even though they are incapable of sin. Hence sin and death, although clearly related for us humans, are not expressive of the full range of death-dealing possibilities. Mary, of course, was human. But because she was such a unique human person, some think that she deserved to be excluded from any experience — even a “blink” — of death. On the other hand, she did have human flesh and blood and she was subject to the effects of aging.
So why should she not have followed a natural path that would separate matter from spirit only to be joined again in risen glory?
As I said, centuries of speculation touch upon your question. Answer it for yourself and ask why you wanted the answer to be the one you prefer. Th en ask what your answer tells you about yourself, as well as about the Mary you want her to be. CD