Talk about good news. I recently received the quarterly magazine published by the Dominican Sisters…
Cleansed in utero?
Question: A priest told us at Mass that St. John the Baptist was born without original sin. Is this true?
— Peter Tate, Long Beach, California
Answer: The Church does not formally teach that St. John the Baptist was born without original sin. However, there is a widespread tradition that he was cleaned of that sin while still in his mother’s womb.
Scripture says, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant [St. John the Baptist] leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice …” (Lk 1:41-42). Some of the Fathers of the Church and other theologians assert that while John was conceived with original sin, he was purified at this moment in Elizabeth’s womb and born without it.
The basis for this tradition is that the presence of original sin is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul. So, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin. It is less clear why tradition applies this indwelling of the Holy Spirit to John, when the text says it was Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit. However, the fruits of indwelling of the Spirit powerfully affect St. John, who leaps for joy. Some have viewed this as a type of in utero baptism where St. John shares in a prevenient way the fruits of Jesus’ Passion, death and Resurrection.
This is not a binding doctrine or a necessary part of Catholic belief. It remains in the realm of a widespread opinion.
The Last Supper
Question: Why is the Last Supper called that? Jesus had many meals with his apostles after his resurrection. Why not call it the Holy Supper?
— Diana Navack, Syracuse, New York
Answer: It is called “Last” since it was the meal that concluded Christ’s public ministry and ushered in his Passion, death and Resurrection. Jesus said at that meal, “I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father” (Mt 26:29). Thus something is ending here and something new is signified.
Your question has merit. Jesus would indeed eat and drink with them again in the 40 days before his Ascension (c.f. Acts 10:41). But those meals were in the “newness” of the Father’s kingdom, and Jesus eats not of necessity (for his body is glorified) but as a sign of his bodily resurrection (e.g. Lk 24:41).
In the phrase “Last Supper” we also encounter the limits of human language and how traditional expressions “stick” or hold down through the centuries. “Last Supper” is not a perfect description of the Holy Thursday meal, for it was also the first Mass. But the phrase serves to highlight its unique quality in a memorable phrase.
Linguistically the English expression “Last Supper” translates the Latin expression Ultima Cena. Ultima is validly translated “last” or “final,” but as you can see, we also get the English word “ultimate” from this word. Hence the Latin word ultima has tones that extend beyond what is merely “last” to that which is ultimate, or culminating, what is greatest or most memorable.
Finally, we can note that the Eastern Churches more often call the Last Supper the “Mystical Supper.” That something is mystical means that there is more here than meets the eye. This is no mere final meal. The Lord is doing something profound, washing their feet, and giving himself in the sign of bread and wine for a perpetual presence, sacrament and sacrifice.