December 7, 2014
Fr. George Smiga
John the Baptist appears in today’s gospel proclaiming the coming kingdom of God. But John does not just tell us about the kingdom, he shows us how to live it. This is why every detail of this gospel is important. Today I would like to focus on two of them. I would like to ask why this text goes out of its way to tell us that John wore camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist.
To answer these questions we can look at other places in the scriptures where these details occur. So let’s take the first. Where else in the New Testament do we find camels? You might say, “Aren’t there camels in the story about the magi who come to visit the Christ child?” There are not. The scriptures never tell us how the magi traveled. Camels were a later development of the tradition. So we do not find camels in the stories of Jesus’ birth. But we do find them during Jesus’ ministry. They are a part of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who wished to follow him. When the man walks away because he had too many possessions, Jesus says that through our possessions and through ourselves we are not able to enter the kingdom of God: “It is like a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.” So camels are about us, about what we cannot do. We are unable on our own to enter the kingdom of God. Only God can bring us in. Only God can allow a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This is why John wears camel’s hair, to remind us of our inability. We cannot on our own bring about the kingdom of God. Our relationship to God is all God’s work, all grace.
So why does John wear a belt. The detail of the belt connects to Jesus’ words in the 12th Chapter of Luke’s gospel. He says, “Fasten your belts, and light your lamps. Be like those awaiting their master’s return from a wedding banquet so you can open the door for him when he comes and knocks.” Wearing a belt is being prepared for action, being ready to serve. Camel’s hair tells us what we cannot do. The belt tells us what we can. We cannot make Christ come, but we can open the door for him when he knocks.
Camel’s hair and belts should be worn together. One tells us that there are some things that only God can do. The other shows us that we still have a role to play. We cannot guarantee that our marriage will always be happy or even successful, but we can tighten our belts and roll up our sleeves to work on communication and when necessary open our hearts in forgiveness. We cannot assure that our children or our friends will always make good decisions. We cannot protect them from all harm. But we can walk with them, hear their pain, and when necessary help them pick up the pieces of their lives. We cannot bring about a world of justice and peace. But when Christ asks us to speak out against a prejudice, help fix a broken law, or teach a child to read, we can be ready to act.
We cannot change people’s hearts or bring about a new creation. Only Christ can do that. But Christ is coming, and it is our role to open the door for him whenever he arrives in the circumstances of our lives. Camel hair tells us what we cannot do. The belt tells us that we are to act, nevertheless. And that is why wearing camel hair with a belt around the waste is not only suitable for John the Baptist at the Jordan. It is the proper attire for anyone who would serve the kingdom of God.