Camel Hair and Locusts and Honey

Yesterday was the Second Sunday of Advent, where the Gospel focus is always on John the Baptist. Yesterday’s Gospel was from St. Mark, for whom “[t]he beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” is, not the annunciation or the manger, but the John the Baptist’s proclamation of salvation.

One of the things that struck me about the homily I heard this weekend, preached by a dear Jesuit friend of mine, was his theological explanation of one verse of that Gospel – the description of John. We are told that “John was clothed in camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.”

Although we often see artistic depictions of John dressed in animal clothing, Joe observed that the description of John’s clothes is not meant to be literal. Rather, the description is meant to recall that of Elijah, who Jesus will later compare John to.

Similarly, we are not meant to believe that John actually ate locusts and honey every day. Instead, the locusts remind us of one of the plagues brought to bear on Egypt; and the honey to remind us of the promise to the Israelites of a land flowing with milk and honey. Bringing to my mind the juxtaposition in Isaiah between God’s condemnation of the Israelites with the promise of reconciliation, the locusts and honey remind us that the choices we make have consequences.

Joe also did a wonderful job talking about how the quote from Isaiah at the beginning of the passage brings together various important elements of the salvation history we read of in the Old Testament. But I think for me most valuable was the reminder that we are intended to read beneath the lines in scripture, to go beyond a literal meaning to a deeper theological meaning. That is an important lesson that extends well beyond this passage.

As an aside, when Joe and I were talking after Mass about Mark beginning with John the Baptist and not with the infant Jesus, Joe observed that if we didn’t have the accounts of Matthew and Luke, we would not celebrate Christmas the way we do. We would still have reason to have an Advent, but it would be very different from the one we have. Good question to ponder: if we only had Mark, what would Advent look like?

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