January 6 is the date celebrated around the world as the day the Magi paid homage to the baby Jesus. In the US Catholic Church, that celebration is held the first Sunday after the 6th — today. For this reason, I’d like to share a story about a wise man you may not have heard before.
When we were in high school, my sister Chris discovered the tale of Artaban, The Story of the Other Wise Man. In this lovely little book (copyrighted 1895), Henry VanDyke tells of Artaban, a wise man of Persia who, like his fellow Magi, plans to travel under the light of a new star to seek out the newborn King of Israel. Artaban has sold his home and worldly possessions in order to make the trip and to take a gift of three jewels fit for the King: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl. On the first night of his journey, Artaban stops to care for an ill man by the side of the road. He misses his rendezvous with the other Magi, however, the man he has helped tells him he should seek the babe in Bethlehem, rather than in Jerusalem. Artaban must sell the sapphire to outfit himself, then travels across the desert, arriving alone in Bethlehem. Stopping at a home with an open door, Artaban receives the news from a young mother, cradling her infant son, that the other Magi and the Nazarene family all fled in the night. Just then, a great disruption is heard, and soldiers enter the street. The people are screaming that the soldiers are killing their babies. As a soldier appears in the doorway of the little home, Artaban lies — claiming he is alone, and offers the ruby if the soldier will pass by this house.
Artaban is ashamed of his lie, but feels he had no choice if he wished to save the baby. He is also distressed at having now used two of the jewels he brought for the King. However, the woman whose child he saves blesses him, and tells him that the Nazarene family fled to Egypt.
And Artaban continues his journey. In Egypt, Artaban follows rumors of the little family he seeks. A wise rabbi tells him the King will be found among the people, not in a palace, so Artaban seeks him in humble surroundings. VanDyke says, “In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, though he found none to worship, he found many to help. He fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and healed the sick, and comforted the captive; and his years went by more swiftly than the weaver’s shuttle that flashes back and forth through the loom while the web grows and the invisible pattern is completed.”
In the thirty-third year of his quest, Artaban comes to the city of Jerusalem in the season of Passover. Artaban sees an excited crowd, and speaks to one of them. He is told that a Nazarene man who has done great things is to be crucified for claiming to be the King of the Jews. Artaban begins to travel with the crowd, thinking he may have finally found the one he sought, only to watch him die. Just then a slave girl breaks away from a group of soldiers who are dragging her through the streets and begs Artaban to help her. Artaban pays for her life and freedom with the last of his jewels, the pearl he has carried next to his heart these many years while seeking the King. There is a sudden earthquake, and Artaban is knocked down by a roof tile which hits him on the head. God speaks to the dying Artaban, telling him that in caring for those in need, Artaban has indeed gifted the King.
The story is old fashioned in its language and melodramatic in its telling, yet (and this really won’t surprise you!) I love it. I have neither Artaban’s faith nor his perseverance. Over the years, though, I have often thought of Artaban’s pearl of great price and I believe that I do possess such a jewel which I must spend well. This life I have been given is my pearl. I have not always appreciated its value, nor have I always chosen to spend it on the things that matter or that make a difference. The tapestry of my days is being woven at an alarmingly fast pace, yet this story helps me to see that my daily choices create the pattern — and I do want it to be a beautiful one!
Here’s to a week spent well and thoughtfully for us all!