There’s a delightful little story by Henry Van Dyke, entitled “The Story of the Other Wise Man,” first published in 1895. The timeless Christmas story is still being told more than a century later by preachers, filmmakers and creative media types.
Three wise men attend the newborn King—that is a Christmas tradition, though not spelled out in Matthew. In Van Dyke’s legendary take on Matthew 2, a fourth wise man attends, but always arrives late. The Bible records only that “Magi from the East” were there. They were likely astrologers or scholars, or perhaps even kings.
An old Armenian tradition identifies the “Magi of Bethlehem” as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia and Gaspar of India. But Van Dyke writes that another wise man is named Artaban. The other three bring gold, frankincense and myrrh—one gift each. But Artaban is bringing three gifts of his own – a ruby, sapphire and “pearl of great price.”
But the fourth wise man doesn’t arrive at the manger scene that first Christmas Day because he’s easily distracted. He loses focus and is sidelined, delayed and detoured. Along the way to Bethlehem he stops to help someone badly injured and needing medical attention. He becomes engaged in other lives at the hospital. At every oasis or hospital along the way he stops to help someone else in need. The three other wise men tire of waiting for their dilly-dallying comrade so they leave him behind to fend for himself, to make his way to Bethlehem on his own.
By the time the fourth wise man arrives, the manger is empty. The Holy Family has fled three days prior as refugees headed to safety in Egypt. They escape death at the hand of a jealous King Herod. The shepherds are gone too, back to their flocks.
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I understand Artaban. He’s always doing one too many things. Very distractible, he diverts from his mission of finding the Christ Child. I too am the other wise man, filled with good intentions. Perhaps you can also identify with him.
In my take on this Christmas story, I can well imagine our late-to-the-party Artaban attending to the many families in Bethlehem who lost children. All those innocents were slaughtered by King Herod and left behind grieving moms and dads. I can just see Artaban attending to their grief needs as a hospice worker.
Then Artaban receives word that the Holy Family is in Egypt. So our intrepid pilgrim treks off from Bethlehem to Egypt, only to be distracted and delayed along the way – again.
Once at Egypt – again, in my version of this story – I imagine Artaban doing what I would do in his place and what I have done this past year. He would engage refugees in need. Someone who’s hungry, he feeds. To someone sleeping in the streets of Cairo, he gives warm clothes or shelter. To those in prison, Artaban would visit and bring hope. Again and again, that fourth wise man is distracted, diverted and delayed from his original mission by heeding the call to love other refugees along the way.
When he learns that the Holy Family is no longer in Egypt, Artaban sets out on another journey of faith. Rumor or an angel has it that Jesus and his parents have been repatriated to Israel, in the region of Galilee – specifically the town of Nazareth. So the faithful wise man continues his pilgrimage to wherever the Spirit leads.
As Van Dyke’s story unfolds, chapter after chapter, city after city, year after year, Artaban spends the rest of his life and his money trying to find the Christ Child. Artaban finally finds Jesus during that last chaotic week in Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday. In my version of this story he is in the crowd, cheering, waving palm branches for what he thought would be a triumphal entry of the Messiah. In 33 years, he still hasn’t managed to meet Him face-to-face, but now he’s close.
Having spent all his gifts on others instead of the Christ, our intrepid pilgrim feels down and out, but then hears Jesus say, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you’ve done for Me” (Matthew 25:40). With Artaban, as with us, every kindness to another, every gemstone sold to alleviate someone’s need or misery, every delay or detour that helps the poor and vulnerable—in all such times had the effect of presenting the Christ Child with his gift. For those who follow behind the Three Wise Men in search of the King, fear not, our treasures are accepted. In the poor and needy we find the Christ in disguise.
Rev. Dietrich Gruen, from Madison, is Bridge Pastor at First Presbyterian of Columbus. He loves delving into the “story behind” some current topic or religious tradition.