I discovered Malcolm Guite this week and am excited to learn more about the Anglican troubadour, priest, and poet. Poetry, in its leanness, offers so much wisdom (just like the Psalms and Proverbs). Here, is one of Guite’s Advent sonnets, that is part of a collection. I hope you enjoy reading and thinking of different metaphors for Jesus on a contemplative winter’s day. Sapientia means wisdom in Latin.
Have you heard of a Burns Supper? I was invited to one this month and was privileged to take in the Scottish tradition of honoring bard Robert Burns.
The annual supper, going strong for 200-plus years, occurs worldwide around Burns’ January 25 birthday. It’s a great excuse for Scottish folk to come together and celebrate their culture and poet. The supper’s festivities may include kilted bagpipers, Highland dancers, poetry, whiskey toasts, and haggis. What’s not to like?
What is Haggis?
You may ask, “What is haggis?” Robert Burns, although a poet, was also a farmer. Sensible country folk know that on the farm when one butchers an animal, such as a sheep, one utilizes everything
except the baaaa. Haggis is a Scottish sausage made from sheep’s stomach stuffed with diced sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, oatmeal, onion, suet, and seasoning. It’s cousin is scrapple, made with cornmeal and pork scraps and enjoyed in the Mid-Atlantic states.
Burns appreciated Haggis so much he wrote “Ode to a Haggis.” Here’s the last verse in English:
You Powers who look after mankind,
And dish out his bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery, wimpy stuff
That splashes about in little wooden bowls!
But, if You will grant her a grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!
No Watery, Wimpy Stuff!
Because of this epicurean fondness, at a Burns Supper, the haggis is the first course brought in with pomp and circumstance—bag pipers and drummers escort the meat held high on a platter to a center table. A kilted Scotsman addresses the haggis, reciting Burns’ poem. Theatrics may include a drawn knife that hacks a thistle (from a vase) and then plunges into the meat.
Diners are served thin haggis slices with mashed potatoes. The rest of the meal is more common banquet fare such as salad, salmon, polenta, roasted carrots, and cake.
Upstanding Whiskey Toasts
I don’t recall ever tasting whiskey until this past month. The warm liquor gets a thumbs up along with the haggis. A wee amount of whiskey is served to each guest. Diners rise “upstanding” and do five toasts with some light-hearted speeches thrown in. At my Burns Supper there were toasts to: the U.S. President, the Queen, “The Immortal Memory” of Burns, “The Lassies,” and finally “The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.”
Burns did love his lassies. He had several illegitimate children with several women and nine children with his wife Jean Armour. While he farmed with his father and brother, Burns composed rough drafts of his poems without paper. With encouragement from his friends and in need of supporting his family, Burns published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect to great success. Following, he wrote and helped collect many of Scotland’s folk songs into several volumes. Unfortunately, poor health resulted in his death at age 37.
You May Know Poems by Burns
After being invited to a Burns Supper, I vaguely remembered as a student reading a few Burns’ poems like “To a Louse.” This poem is the one where Burns observes a louse on a pious woman’s bonnet during a church service.
That famous line: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men” comes from Burns’ poem “To a Mouse,” after he accidentally destroyed the mouse’s winter home with a plow.
Burns’ poem “Auld Lang Syne” (For Old Time’s Sake) has given me my word for 2017: “kindness.” At Burns Suppers people sing this song in closing as they often hold crossed hands. Kindness is a good word to remember as we plunge farther into this topsy-turvy year.
A “We Can Eat” Prayer
Burns Suppers often include the recitation of this meal prayer, which has 17th century roots. Tradition says Burns recited this prayer while attending a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.
Selkirk Grace (1)
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
[The last line is often varied to read]
And sae the Lord be thankit
Selkirk Grace (2)
Some have meat and cannot eat,
Some cannot eat that want it;
But we have meat and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit.
Below are links to explore Robert Burns’ poetry and a five-minute rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
King Herod’s palace is in an uproar. Wisemen from the East, arriving on camels, are asking, “”Where is the child born to be King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him?”
Jerusalem scholars have studied that incredible star, too. But they don’t tell Herod it means the birth of a new king, because that would mean, “Off with their heads!” Instead, the scribes deceive. Possibly they tell the paranoid King the star is a sign of God’s good pleasure on his reign. After all, hadn’t Herod recently restored their beloved temple?
Whatever mumble jumble the priests conjure up apparently appeases Herod until those pesky foreigners arrive. Assuming the new prince is at the palace, the visitors innocently ask, “Where is he?”
When Herod meddles, all hell breaks forth. He demands the truth, and his scribes quote Prophet Micah:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2, NIV version).
Exceedingly Great Joy!
Picture the wisemen’s “exceedingly great joy” when they leave the palace and see that the beautiful star has reappeared over Bethlehem. The caravan plods those final six miles. Then, camels kneel so the wisemen can dismount. The foreigners go into a simple home and worship the baby, offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Of course this humble environment is acceptable. They recognize the King of kings is not meant just for Bethlehem or Judea but for everywhere. That night as they sleep they experience the same dream. It holds a command: “Do not revisit Herod and tell him about this baby. Go home a different route.”
In the morning those wisemen compare their dreams and hurriedly break camp. Their camels can run top speed for an hour if they need to, and without heavy loads some camels easily go 12 to 25 mph. Those long necks and adorable heads press into the journey home.
One Camel Problem
However, there is a caveat. Camels are not mentioned in the Bible’s Christmas story, but logic dictates these “ships of the desert” were the transportation of choice. The Bible doesn’t mention how many wisemen there were either. Church tradition reasons there were three gifts, therefore, three wisemen. But I sense there were more men and maybe more gifts. The wisemen, probably from Iran where Prophet Daniel lived long before, needed lots of camels and servants for protection and provisions on their long journey.
Like the donkey, the camel is not kosher food for the Jewish people. In the Old Testament, however, camels are counted as a sign of wealth. They are used mainly as pack animals and for farm labor.
Whether they possess one hump or two, camels daily eat about nine pounds of food and drink up to 50 gallons of water. Their tough tongues handle thorns and wood, but they prefer leaves, grass, and figs. Two sets of eye lashes protect their sight from desert wind and sand. Of course, those fatty humps of reserve allow them to endure thirst and starvation for many days.
Camels in the New Testament
Although the camel is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, notations are worthy.
The gospels tell us the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Can you imagine a toddler in Egypt pointing a chubby finger at camels? Perhaps some gracious Egyptian merchant allows the little boy to sit behind his camel’s hump and touch the fur.
The New Testament tells us the Holy Family returns to Nazareth after King Herod dies. Just before Jesus begins his adult ministry his cousin John the Baptist announces, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent!” John, in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, knows how to get people buzzing about his “brand.” Unlike the pharisees and scribes who flaunt the Versace and Dior of their day, John wears camel hair tied with a leather belt.
Teacher Jesus and Camels
In his teaching there are only two recorded times Jesus uses the camel as an outrageous picture to condemn Jerusalem’s spiritually blind leaders. Remember the camel stands seven feet high at its hump and can weigh over 1000 pounds:
Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: “You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.”
That set the disciples back on their heels. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked.
Jesus was blunt: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.” (Mark 10:23-27, The Message)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24, Berean Study Bible).
The only other New Testament connection I found about camels concerns Jesus’ follower James the Just, who also possesses an unusual nickname. This author of the Book of James writes much about prayer. Bible Gateway explains, “Because of his habit of always kneeling in intercession for the saints, his knees became calloused like a camel’s; thus he became known as ‘The Man with Camel’s Knees.’”
Camels and Us
As I think about the camels of Christmas I am drawn to their ability to endure
heavy loads and persevere. When resources are few, the camels have their built up fatty humps to help them survive. These animals develop calluses on bended knees. For us, too, preparation when possible and perseverance during hard times on praying knees are not shabby gifts to offer the Savior.
As Camel Knees writes, “My friends, follow the example of the prophets who spoke for the Lord. They were patient, even when they had to suffer….The prayer of an innocent person is powerful, and it can help a lot. Elijah was just as human as we are, and for three and a half years his prayers kept the rain from falling. But when he did pray for rain, it fell from the skies and made the crops grow” (James 5:10, 16-18 CEV).
Below is a two-minute Youtube video about a camel who recently won a weight lifting competition in Pakistan. Notice this animal’s calloused, bended knees; patient strength; and amazing height.