Today’s Gospel describes John the Baptist as “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” (Mk. 1:6) The description reminds me of the main character in a series of movies from the 1940’s. “The Falcon” was a gentleman detective played by the actor George Sanders. The Falcon was always nattily dressed, and often caused the ladies to swoon. He was the sort of debonair tough guy who would definitely be found wearing leather accessories and a camel colored overcoat.
The Gospel story about John the Baptist, obviously, has something else in mind. The Gospel doesn’t portray the Baptizer as worldly and sophisticated (like The Falcon). Rather, John the Baptist comes across as a rather wild, ragged figure driven by an other-worldly spirit. This Gospel story intends for us to consider the difference between being worldly and being driven by a different spirit.
The book we’ve been using for Adult Faith Formation this Fall describes the effects that growing older has on one’s spirituality. The early period of one’s life is necessarily dedicated to getting one’s life together, that is, getting an education and a job, marrying, and starting a family. The book addresses specifically the middle years of life, the period of time in which we are asked to give our lives away in the sense of learning to serve someone other than ourselves. Giving one’s life away, according to the author, means to look after the needs of one’s family and society, and to try to meet the demands of the Gospel in a more radical way.
We live at a time when this second phase of maturity doesn’t happen for all, or even for the majority. We live in a society that tells us to spend our entire lives pursuing perfect satisfaction of all our desires. The Falcon, in the movies I mentioned above, was constantly engaged in the pursuit of adulation and accomplishments. He appeared to have his life together, but only in the most shallow sense. He was never able to move beyond his desires for attention and notoriety.
Although those movies were produced more than seventy years ago, the values portrayed in those stories are remarkably contemporary. The vast majority of people today spend most of their waking hours seeking attention and notoriety. The Falcon had to solve crimes in surprising and spectacular ways in order to get noticed. Today, we have only to sit in front of a computer screen to tout our prowess and accomplishments. The possibility of giving one’s life away in service of God and neighbor is rarely considered to be a viable option.
John the Baptist’s clothing and surroundings were a graphic testimony to his abandonment of everything and anything that stood in the way of accomplishing God’s will. He was a man who gave his life away freely. His was not a life spent worrying about public opinion or accomplishments or personal comforts or a comfortable retirement. He lived in the desert. He denied himself the normal comforts of life, and did so for the purpose of bringing others to a renewed faith in God.
The Baptist’s radical sacrifice brought many of his contemporaries back to the faith of their ancestors. Furthermore, I am convinced that his radical sacrifice must have afforded him a depth of consolation that he wouldn’t have found otherwise.
This Gospel story intends for us to consider the difference between being worldly and being driven by a different spirit. The difference between these two is that pursuing God’s will blesses both us and those around us; self-serving behavior, on the other hand, impoverishes all.
There ought to be a little bit of John’s leather belt and camel’s hair in each of our lives. There ought to be a little bit of a wild, spirit-driven selflessness that impels us to serve God and others. Unless we spend our lives freely in service of God and neighbor, we waste our lives in dissipation. Perhaps, worse than that, we deny those around us the opportunity to hear the Gospel’s call to renewed faith.
The next time you catch yourself worrying about having the latest fashion statement, or the “It” accessory, or the newest popular luxury item, remember the example of John the Baptist’s lifestyle. He abandoned all but the necessities for the sake of God’s Kingdom. When you find yourself worrying about how others might react to your religious faith, remember the Baptizer’s proclamation. His courage called many back to faithful relationships with God and neighbor. If you’re tempted to worry that you haven’t bought the “perfect Christmas gift” for someone you love, please keep in mind that the more valuable gift is the witness of a faithful life.
There is a depth of joy and consolation that comes only from a courageous and unfettered faith. The Baptizer said, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Mk. 1:3) The “way of the Lord” is a life that makes an unmistakable statement about the overriding value of following God’s will and teaching others to do the same.