As a child, my favorite Christmas story was a little volume, a gift from my mother, Henry Van Dyke's "The Story of the Other Wise Man."
As Van Dyke related the story there were four Magi, not three, who set out to find the newborn King of the Jews - Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar and Artaban. Each was bearing rich gifts. Artaban's were three jewels - a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl.
Scholars all, specializing in astrology, their studies and observations had indicated the approximate time and place of the birth. By prearrangement they started out separately from their homes when His star appeared in the Heavens, to meet at a caravan for the journey. They arrived as planned. That is, three of them did. Artaban didn't make it. When only a few miles from the place of rendezvous -the Temple of Scheres - he came upon a stricken man lying in the roadway. Dismounting, Artaban ministered to him - he also was something of a physician. Upon learning the Magian's name and mission the grateful stranger - he was an exiled Hebrew - told him that revelation gave Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem as the place of the King's birth.
At the Temple he discovered that his companions had continued without him, leaving a message under a cairn of stones. Unable to negotiate the desert on horseback, Artaban returned to Babylon, sold his sapphire to buy a camel and other equipment and took off again.
Arriving at length at Bethlehem he was late again - three days late. His friends and the Holy Family had disappeared.
From a young mother at whose cottage he made inquiries, Artaban learned the cause of the sudden departure and the almost deserted condition of the village. The men had fled to the hills with their flocks to escape a new tax that had just been levied. Everybody was fearfully awaiting the arrival of Herod's soldiers.
While they were still talking the soldiers came, carrying out the slaughter of the Innocents aimed at destroying the new King of the Jews. Artaban stood in the cottage doorway, assured the soldiers there was no child in the house and bribed the captain with the second of his jewels, the ruby, to pass the cottage by.
When the soldiers had left, Artaban asked forgiveness for his deception and took up his quest anew. Thereafter for 33 years he wandered from village to village, the last three in the footsteps of the Master without ever quite catching up with Him.
"So I saw the other wise man again and again, traveling from place to place, and searching among the people of the dispersion, with whom the little family of Bethlehem might, perhaps, have found refuge. He passed through countries where famine lay heavy on the land and the poor were crying for bread. He made his dwelling in plague-stricken cities where the sick were languishing in the bitter companionship of helpless misery. He visited the oppressed and the afflicted in the gloom of subterranean prisons, the crowded wretchedness of slave markets and the weary toil of galley ships. In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, though he found none to worship he found many to help ..."
Finally, a broken, disappointed old man, he returned to Jerusalem, just when throngs were rushing from the city to the place called Golgatha to witness the triple crucifixion. He joined in the procession, his heart racing. He was nearing the end of his quest.
But there was a final interruption. A captive slave girl in the hands of Macedonian soldiers, seeing him pass by, cried out for mercy. Artaban stopped. Let Van Dyke take it from here:
"He took the pearl from his bosom. Never had it seemed so luminous, so radiant, so full of tender living lustre. He laid it in the hand of the slave.
"'This is thy ransom, daughter. It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the King.'
"While he spoke the darkness of the sky thickened, and shuddering tremors ran through the earth, heaving convulsively like the breast of one who struggles with mighty grief.
"The walls of the houses rocked to and fro. Stones were loosened and crashed to the street. Dust clouds filled the air. The soldiers fled in terror, reeling like drunken men. But Artaban and the girl whom he ransomed crouched helpless beneath the wall of the Praetorium.
"What had he to fear? What had he to live for? He had given away the last remnant of his tribute to the King. He had parted with the last hope of finding Him. The quest was over, and it had failed. But, even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace. It was not resignation. It was not submission. It was something more profound and searching. He knew that all was well because he had done the best that he could, from day to day. He had been true to the light that had been given him. He had looked for more. And if he had not found it, if a failure was all that came out of his life, doubtless that was the best that was possible. He had not seen the revelation of 'life everlasting, incorruptible and immortal.' But he knew that even if he could live his earthly life over again, it could not be otherwise than what it had been.
"One more lingering pulsation of the earthquake quivered through the ground. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple. He lay breathless and pale, with his head resting on the young girl's shoulder, and the blood trickling from his wound. As she bent over him, fearing that he was dead, there came a voice through the twilight, very small and still, like music sounding from a distance, in which the notes are clear but the words are lost. The girl turned to see if someone had spoken from the window above but she saw no one.
"Then the old man's lips began to move, as if in answer, and she heard him say in the Parthian tongue:
"'Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee hungry and fed thee? Or thirsty and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? But I have never seen thy face, or ministered to thee, my King.'
"He ceased, and the sweet voice came again. And again the maid heard it, very faintly and far away. But now it seemed as though she understood the words:
"'Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brothers, thou has done it unto me.'
"A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn on a snowy mountain peak. One long, last breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips.
"His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The other Wise Man had found the King."
A happy and understanding Christmas to you.
As has been a tradition each Christmas Day for many years, we reprint here the story of The Other Wise Man as written by the late Tom Flynn, who served as editor and later as editorial page editor of The Intelligencer during a career that spanned 60 years.