Monday, February 3, 2014

How do we understand sin?

It’s very seldom talked about, even in religious circles.  “Original Sin” has connotations of a concept that is something that was of the bygone era, and we modern people tend to put it aside when we broach the topic of religion.  Yet, at every baptism, we know that what is happening is that the one baptized is ‘washed clean’ of original sin.  I know many struggle with a good explanation of what this really is, and in my own catechetical presentations, have tried in so many different ways to bring its truth across to the people I taught, and sometimes, I wonder if it was with any degree of success.

In a rather graphic way, the story in Genesis gives us a dramatic account of Adam and Eve, our first parents, and their original sin.  The bottom line is that they took a forbidden fruit, and disobeyed a command by God to not do it.  It is not the fruit that was the sin.  It was what led to the eating.  It was the taking. 

Original sin encompasses everything that causes us to think of our needs and ourselves and wants as far more important that what anyone or anything else beyond ourselves.  It is that drive that spurs us on to what we think is greatness and self-satisfaction.  All sin begins with a drive and a need to satisfy oneself.  This was what Genesis tries to depict in a graphic and simple way, but perhaps to the modern mind, its simplicity makes many think about it as being simplistic.  But the greater truth is that this sin or inclination to sin affects every human person. 

So what does it mean when a person is ‘free from Original Sin’ like Mary?  Perhaps it will help if we look at how her life is different from ours, and from that perspective, we will be able to see what sin and the effects of Original Sin does to us. 

The gospel passages that do feature Mary teach us in a rather hidden way about the effect of original sin.   What Mary doesn’t do and how she doesn’t react gives us an indication of what the effects of original sin are because of our belief that Mary was born without original sin. 

The Annunciation
It is clear that Mary was not at all self-seeking when the annunciation took place.  There was no concern about how topsy-turvy Mary’s life would be from that moment on, and how her marriage to Joseph would be negatively impacted.  Original sin causes us to always think about ourselves first and what ‘others’ will say.  We have a very fragile ego to protect and perhaps promote.  Mary was free from this need, and this is clear in her free and willing acceptance of the will of God for her even though it was going to bring untold suffering and a great living in mystery.

The Visitation
Yet another clear example of putting her own needs aside is seen in the visitation to her cousin Elizabeth.  One of the hallmarks of sin is that of self-aggrandizement and the seeking of comfort and security at the expense of others.  Mary’s immediate journey to her cousin Elizabeth’s aid when she was told of her pregnancy is an indication that even though Mary was going to be mother of God, it was not something that inflated her ego.  Her great charity and compassion is writ large in her visitation.  This is something that all of us who have traces and effects of original sin constantly battle with.  On good days, we manage to show a little compassion and charity, but on bad days, we know we fail miserably.

The Presentation of the Lord
How do we sinners react to prophecies that are ominous?  The best of us would cast them aside to quell our anxieties and silently hope that they would not come true.  The worst of us would probably react badly and castigate the ‘prophet’ in our own ways.  But in the passages that show Mary’s encounter with Simeon and Anna in the temple, even though a dark message was given to Mary about her heart being pierced by a sword, we are given an indication of how her sinlessness gave her the ability to hold it all in faith and a willingness to allow things to happen in their due course.  How do we react when people cast aspersions on our projects and us in our lives?  Sin and its effects are always lurking nearby to cause us to react and want the last say, usually in a derogatory way.

The kindred of Jesus do not threaten Mary
In Luke 8:19-21, we are given a small but very important teaching about how when one is living in grace, one never feels threatened or insecure in life.  When Jesus mentioned to the crowd that whoever hears the word of God and does it is his mother, we do not see Mary in any sort of uproar of disapproval.  Her role as Jesus’ mother is not at all threatened.  Sin’s effect is just the opposite.  Our insecurities in life (which are numerous, for sure) are an effect of our sinfulness and often rears their ugly heads at the mere mention of anything that shows others are better or equal to us.  When one is ‘full of grace’, one has the ability to allow others into one’s life in ways that have no borders and limits.  Sin may always threat, but grace always treats.

The Wedding at Cana
Mary’s openness to God’s plan in difficult situations is on display here.  Mary was a special guest as we are told that the mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited.  The fact that Mary uttered so few words to Jesus “they have no wine” is an indication of not only her trust in God’s providence but also her deference to God to work as he deems fit.  Grace accords one this rare ability.  Sin on the other hand causes us to constantly want to be in the driver’s seat and control people and situations, often without our needing to, leading to much unhappiness in our lives and those whom we seem to want to control.

Mary at the foot of the Cross
John (19:25) tells us that Mary was standing near the cross of Jesus at his crucifixion.  Far more than an indication of her physical position, this mention of John’s indicates something deep and mystical about Mary.  She did not rant and rave at the injustice that was unfolding before her.  She did not demand an explanation from God or the authorities.  She did not even demand to understand what was happening.  Instead of wanting to “understand”, she chose to “stand under” the great mystery of the Cross.  Grace does this to those who suffer much.  But when one is living with the terrible effects of sin, one cannot handle much mystery nor great suffering well.  We demand answers, and we want them yesterday.  We do not “stand under” any cross well and cannot stand much that is unexplained and unclear. 

In these five brief examples of Mary and how she handled the situations she found herself in, there is some indication of how she is so different from any of us who are living the effects of original sin and original shame (as Fr Richard Rohr often calls it).  Our baptism gives us a real antidote and weaponry against these weaknesses of ours, because it aligns our lives with Christ’s who only lived to do the Father’s will.  Being aware of what our baptism gives us in grace becomes then our ability to not let original sin and its effects master our lives. 

I hope that this reflection allows readers to re-appreciate what their baptism gave to them and the need to be constantly aware of sin’s proximity when we are confronted by the attitudes of a sinful world.  May these thoughts be aids towards our shared quest for sanctity and holiness.


  1. Thank you Fr Luke. I love this entry of yours (= i am reminded about my baptism and living my life as a Catholic.

  2. Hail Mary! Surely our mother Mary is the purest example of Faithfulness, Obedience and Trust in God; especially the virtue of obedience, which we are often told is for the weak and simple-minded. She who has been described as, "Our tainted nature's solitary boast" has been given to us as our heavenly mother - fulfilling Jesus's promise that He would not leave us orphans. Thank you, Fr. Luke once again.