A Strange Figure in the Wilderness
In this week's Gospel reading, we meet John the Baptist, who appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. He was a strange figure, clad in camel's hair and a leather belt and surviving on locusts and wild honey.
Since both Matthew and Mark emphasize John's apparel and diet, these details must tell us something important about the Baptist. Let's take a closer look.
John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. This was the clothing of lower class workers like shepherds and camel drivers. Camel's hair fabric, which was also used to make tents, was cheap, course, rough, and prickly, but it was also sturdy and would have stood up well to a life in the wilderness. John's rough leather belt kept his garment in place and probably served other practical purposes during his time in the desert.
John's simple, course garment and belt revealed his humility and asceticism. He wasn't dressing to impress anyone. He wasn't looking for comfort or worldly wealth. In fact, he preferred not to be distracted by such things. His focus was elsewhere, and by denying himself the pleasure of fine clothing, he kept his attention firmly centered on his prophetic mission.
This brings us to another point about John's rough apparel; it was the clothing of a prophet. In 2 Kings 1:8, the prophet Elijah is described as a “hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” Elijah was probably wearing a camel's hair garment similar to that of John. Remember that before John was conceived, the archangel Gabriel appeared to his father, Zechariah, to announced that the son to be born to him would come in the “spirit and power of Elijah” to prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 1:17). John was the last Old Testament prophet, the heir of Elijah, the one who would proclaim God's plan to the people and help them prepare for the Messiah. John's garments, then, were a physical sign of his important role.
During his ministry, John the Baptist survived on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Most modern readers are probably repulsed by the idea of eating locusts, but they were a common food in the ancient world, and the poorer classes of Israel ate them frequently. They were easy to obtain, sometimes too easy when they swarmed and destroyed farmers' crops. They were considered clean under the Jewish Law (see Leviticus 11:21-23), and they were actually quite nutritious because they were packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals. People usually ate locusts roasted, sun-dried, or salted. John supplemented his diet with the wild honey that was deposited between rocks and in the hollows of trees by wild bees.
Locusts and wild honey certainly did not make up a huge, sumptuous feast. This was sparing food but enough to stay alive and physically strong. Once again, John's focus was elsewhere. He didn't have time to pay much attention to himself or what he ate. He was too intent upon announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah and helping the Israelites prepare their hearts and minds to greet Him when He finally appeared.