Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Kasper, Melchior, and Balthazar. These three gifts and names are familiar enough. We see images of the three kings who visited Jesus in almost every nativity scene, even if Biblically inaccurate. It is a marvelous and beautiful scene to contemplate: Jesus honored as the King He is for the first time; and honored by pagans no less, foreshadowing both the rejection of the Messiah by the chosen people and the universal message of Christ. Though marvelous it is all too familiar. And the familiar often loses a certain luster which can be regained through the imaginative admixture of the unfamiliar. The Story of the Other Wise Man is one of those unfamiliar creations that helps restore to the imagination the weight and wonder proper to the narrative.
In this beautiful and charming little story, Henry van Dyke tells the tale of Artaban, the Other Wise Man, who was accidentally left behind when the famous three set out and who spent the rest of his days seeking the new King whose birth the stars foretold. Van Dyke says in his introduction that he has always felt the story not to be his own although not written in any other book. “I do not know where it came from—out of the air, perhaps… It was sent to me; and it seemed as if I knew the Giver.” Van Dyke describes himself in a hall of dreams, from where he witnesses the unfolding of the story.
Artaban carries his gifts for the Child under his cloak: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl. Over the course of the story he finds himself in difficult situations and his gifts provide the means required to remedy them. Since he was delayed by helping a sick man on the side of the road, Artaban is late for the caravan crossing the desert so he must decide either to sell his sapphire to fund his quest or to abandon it. Later, he bribes a Roman officer with his blood-red ruby so that he will not bring bloody death to a certain house during the slaughter of the innocents. Artaban struggles with his choices. He thinks he does wrong to spend for man what was meant for God. Van Dyke describes this conflict as the expectation of faith against the impulse of love. It is a conflict that has often reared its head over the years since the Incarnation. Saint Benedict’s sister Scholastica prayed that her brother might stay throughout the night talking with her instead of returning to his monastery as prescribed by his famous rule. The Jansenists preferred regulations to love, thus preferring to be servants rather than children of God. Love complicates things because it bends the rules in unexpected ways. There is something about us that likes everything to be laid out and just so. We like to know just what is expected of us. This is not, however, the spontaneous and improvising language of love. A severe and miraculous storm prevented Benedict from returning to his monastery and the Jansenists were pronounced heretics.
Artaban parts with his gifts to save a sick stranger, a threatened child, and a friendless woman. We are left with the words of Christ echoing in our ears: “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” Artaban must part even with his pearl, pointedly called the pearl of great price by van Dyke in the chapter title. Artaban, like the man in the parable, sold all of his possessions to buy the gems for the King; to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven. This was the expectation of faith. What he did not expect was that he would have to give these gifts to others out of love. The Kingdom is gained through the giving of it. “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”
Van Dyke unfolds to us the old and somewhat worn story of the Magi in a way both new and refreshing. The story of Artaban is really the story of us all. We are all called to be other wise men. We do not see Jesus in the way Artaban expected to see Him. We must, like Artaban, spend our lives seeking and following, doing good with the precious but brief time we have been allotted. We all are sojourners in this world, on a life-long pilgrimage to our true home, for which we were made. “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Our task will seem silly and even wrong to the world, as it did to one of Artaban’s interlocutors at the beginning of the story. “This is a vain dream.” said Tigranes, “It comes from too much looking upon the stars and the cherishing of lofty thoughts.” Tigranes continued to say that Artaban would do better by saving his money and putting it towards the building of a new temple. And Tigranes is right. The Incarnation is for dreamers dreaming a dream so fantastic that it surpassed even those most incredible. Tigranes is again right. Artaban should have saved his money and spent it on a temple, just like a certain repentant woman should have sold the perfume and spent the money on the poor. Once again, love refuses to be bound by rules.
And lastly, Artaban is an example for us by his giving of gifts. Artaban gave honor to Jesus by giving gifts to others. This should be our motivation as well during Christmastide. In showing love for our neighbors, we show love for Christ. “Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” Artaban discovered this wonderful truth after his gifts were given but we have the advantage of the Gospels and we can therefore make it part, if not all, of our motivation.
“It was the old conflict in his soul, which had come to him in the palm-grove of Babylon and in the cottage at Bethlehem—the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love.” Artaban realized in the end the beautiful resolution of this conflict. The impulse of love was the un-expectation of faith. To demonstrate His inexpressible love, God became man to save us from our sins. Artaban had at last found the King, and His Law of Love. Though unfamiliar to many, The Story of the Other Wise Man is about what must be familiar to all: our kinship with Christ and our participation in His kingdom. Moreover, the Gospel message is not limited to the Gospel. Tales and traditions like Artaban’s (or van Dyke’s) extend the call to seek Him. They perceive the Star in the East from other points on the compass. They make people again aware of what familiarity can dull—that we all are bidden to rejoice with great joy, fall down in worship, and open our treasures before the Christ Child.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “The Journey of the Three Kings” painted by Leopold Kupelwieser in 1825.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.