The editorial of the month
by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P
Matthew the Evangelist, in the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent, introduces us to John the Baptist. Of all the things Matthew could tell us about John, this is what he needs us to know: John had a leather belt around his waist. Why include this detail?
Belts in the Bible
Perhaps the emphasis on the Baptist’s belt is to signal to us that, this Advent, we would do well to be “belted” too.
John is presented to the world as the new Elijah (Mt 11:14), even to the point of his apparel. The Prophet Elijah went about wearing a hairy garment… with a leather girdle [belt] about his loins (2 Kgs 1:8).
Belts in the Bible serve a variety of functions. They are eminently practical. As Jesuit Father Cornelius a Lapide points out, by girding up their robes, the people in the time of Jesus “were more ready for the journey, and more strong for work.”
A belt acts as an essential element of a soldier’s equipment (e.g., 1 Sm 18:4). A belt holds a warrior’s weapons. By girding up his clothing, a belt maximizes the soldier’s freedom of movement in battle.
The spiritual significance of belts
But there is also a spiritual side to belts. A belt distinguishes the dress of the godly (e.g., Dn 10:5). The shoot to sprout from the stump of Jesse will wear faithfulness as a belt upon his hips (Is 11:5).
A belt can serve a penitential purpose. Father a Lapide says that John the Baptist wore a leather belt so that “it might press his sackcloth more closely to his body, and so the more prick and mortify his flesh and subdue it to the spirit. It is a common saying: ‘A girded garment, a girded mind: an ungirded garment, an ungirded mind.’”
The belt was commonly viewed as a symbol of restraint against lust. We see this reflected in the priest’s vesting prayers. As the celebrant puts on the cincture—the rope-like fabric sash worn around the alb to keep the stole in place—he prays, “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.” For it represents the virtue of self-mastery.
This is why, in teaching us how to await the master’s return, Jesus commands us to gird your loins (Lk 12:35). We appeal for the strength needed to be able to resist on the evil day (Eph 6:13). That strength will be ours if we but stand fast with your loins girded in truth (Eph 6:14).
The gait belt
The last few months of my mother’s life brought a marked loss of mobility, so that things like stairs became a major challenge for her. That’s when nurses told us about the gait belt: a long, wide, thickly woven cotton strap with a non-slip buckle. When put snuggly around a patient’s waist, the gait belt turns into an amazing assistive device that provides a caregiver the leverage needed to transfer a frail person from a bed to a chair, or from a sitting position to standing. It is an invaluable tool for helping an infirm person in and out of a car. If a patient should lose his or her balance while
walking, it affords the escort an easy and able way to grasp and stabilize the person to prevent him or her from falling.
This is the belt we need this Advent…because it is a belt of mercy. How prone we are to fall…how hard it is for us to move forward, to get back up on our two feet…how weak we are to stay the path and to keep ourselves from falling.
But the belt of faithfulness and truth will give us the strength to face the persecution integral to Christian discipleship. One day the prophet Agabus approached the Apostle Paul and, taking Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet with it. He said to Paul, Thus says the holy Spirit: This is the way the Jews will bind the owner of this belt in Jerusalem, and they will hand him over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:10-11). In a similar way, the risen Jesus says to the Apostle Peter, When you were younger, you used to dress yourself [literally: gird yourself] and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go (Jn 21:18).
We place our gaze, not on persecution, but on the Advent promise. Just as an angel once appeared to the imprisoned Peter, loosed his chains, and commanded him, Put on your belt…and follow me (Acts 12:7-8), so too will we follow the angel of the Annunciation, united in the compelling counsel of Saint Peter: Gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pt 1:13).