The 4th wise man was late. Oops. Three days late. How do you like that? No sight of the Holy Child in the manger. No entry into scripture, or the history books. His three astrologer friends, the three wise men, have Christmas carols sung to them every year. Was he just a bad astrologer who didn't see the sign quite right? Or did something happen along the way, like his camel breaking down in the desert? This story is his story - of how he actually was a great astrologer from the East, who was presented with a dilemma, a moral dilemma. To some people he chose rightly, to others he was a fool.
His name was Artaban, and being a Magi, it was time to have a party. He invited his close friends, all Magi's as well. They lit a fire in the corner of his humble house and assembled around it saying their usual prayers. His robe was of pure white wool, thrown over a tunic of silk. It was the dress of the ancient priesthood of the Magi, called the fire-worshippers.The floor was laid with tiles of dark blue veined with white; the vaulted ceiling was a pavement of blue stones, like the body of heaven in its clearness, sown with silver stars. In effect the room was like a quiet, starry night, all azure and silver.
After the prayers, Artaban spoke. "You have come tonight at my call, as the faithful scholars of Zoroaster, to renew your worship and rekindle your faith in the God of Purity, even as this fire has been rekindled on the altar. We worship not the fire, but Him of whom it is the chosen symbol, because it is the purest of all created things. Hear me, then, while I tell you of the new light and truth that have come to me through the most ancient of all signs. The highest of all learning is the knowledge of the stars. To trace their course is to untangle the threads of the mystery of life from the beginning to the end. If we could follow them perfectly, nothing would be hidden from us. The stars are the thoughts of the eternal."
Artaban explained to them how he and three other Magi astrologers had read a sign indicating the coming of the Messiah."It has been shown to me and to my three companions among the Magi--Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. We have searched the ancient tablets of Chaldea and computed the time. It falls in this year. We have studied the sky, and in the spring of the year we saw two of the greatest planets (Jupiter and Saturn) draw near together in the sign of the Fish (Pisces). We also saw a new star there, which shone for one night and then vanished. Now again the two great planets are meeting. This night is their conjunction. My three brothers are watching by the ancient Temple in Babylonia, and I am watching here. If the star shines again, they will wait ten days for me at the temple, and then we will set out together for Jerusalem, to see and worship the promised one who shall be born King of Israel. I believe the sign will come. I have made ready for the journey. I have sold my possessions, and bought these three jewels--a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl--to carry them as tribute to the King. And I ask you to go with me on the pilgrimage, that we may have joy together in finding the Prince who is worthy to be served."
None of the other Magi assembled were willing to go with him however. Either they thought it was a crazy idea to follow such a sign, or they had other obligations. One said, "Artaban, this is a vain dream. It comes from too much looking upon the stars and the cherishing of lofty thoughts. It would be wiser to spend the time in gathering money for the new fire-temple at Chala. No king will ever rise from the broken race of Israel." It was clear that he had to travel alone to meet the other three wise men and journey together across the desert from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
He set out that evening and chose not a camel, but a horse - a fast horse, because he could not be late. Together they flew and stopped little. It was 10 days of hard going and both he and his horse were exhausted. On the 10th day he calculated that he was only three hours away from the temple where the three wise men would be waiting for him. But he must reach there before midnight, which was when they would have to leave for Jerusalem - without him. He had no time to lose.
Suddenly Artaban saw something mysterious in the rode in front of him and sensed danger. Artaban dismounted. The dim starlight revealed the form of a man lying across the road. His pallid skin, dry and yellow as parchment, bore the mark of the deadly fever which ravaged the marsh-lands in autumn. The chill of death was in his lean hand, and, as Artaban released it, the arm fell back inertly upon the motionless breast.
He turned away with a thought of pity, leaving the body to that strange burial. But, as he turned, a long, faint, ghostly sigh came from the man's lips. The bony fingers gripped the hem of the Magian's robe and held him fast. Artaban's heart leaped to his throat, not with fear, but with a dumb resentment at the importunity of this blind delay. How could he stay here in the darkness to minister to a dying stranger? What claim had this unknown fragment of human life upon his compassion or his service? If he lingered but for an hour he could hardly reach the appointed time. His companions would think he had given up the journey. They would go without him. He would lose his quest. But if he went on now, the man would surely die. If Artaban stayed, life might be restored. His spirit throbbed and fluttered with the urgency of the crisis. Should he risk the great reward of his faith for the sake of a single deed of charity?
Hence, was his moral dilemma. "God of truth and purity," he prayed, "direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest." Then he turned back to the sick man. He brought water from one of the small canals near by, and moistened the sufferer's brow and mouth. He mingled a draught of one of those simple but potent remedies which he carried always in his girdle--for the Magians were physicians as well as astrologers--and poured it slowly between the colorless lips. Hour after hour he labored as only a skilful healer of disease can do. At last the man's strength returned.
It was already long past midnight, and surely his friends would have left without him. But he rode on without further delay anyway, hoping that there was a chance they would still be waiting for him. After three hours the sun rose and he arrived at the temple. But, alas, his friends were no where to be seen. At the edge of the terrace he saw a little cairn of broken bricks, and under them a piece of papyrus. He caught it up and read: "We have waited past the midnight, and can delay no longer. We go to find the King. Follow us across the desert." How can I cross the desert with no food and with a spent horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire, and buy a train of camels, and provision for the journey. I may never overtake my friends. Only God the merciful knows whether I shall not lose the sight of the King because I tarried to show mercy."
So Artaban sold his sapphire and made the journey across the desert to Jerusalem. After many days of a dry, hot, miserable journey he finally arrived at Bethlehem. The fourth wise man inquired as to whether his friends had indeed arrived in time according to the sign in the sky to see the Messiah's birth. He clutched his ruby and pearl that he would offer to the Holy Child.From the open door of a cottage he heard the sound of a woman's voice singing softly. He entered and found a young mother hushing her baby to rest. She told him of the strangers from the far East who had appeared in the village three days ago, and how they said that a star had guided them to the place where Joseph of Nazareth was lodging with his wife and her new-born child, and how they had paid reverence to the child and given him many rich gifts. He then knew that they had been successful, and he had not.
"But the travelers disappeared again," she continued, "as suddenly as they had come. The man of Nazareth took the child and his mother, and fled away that same night secretly. Ever since, there has been a spell upon the village; something evil hangs over it. They say that the Roman soldiers are coming from Jerusalem to force a new tax from us, and the men have driven the flocks and herds far back among the hills, and hidden themselves to escape it." Suddenly there came the noise of a wild confusion in the streets of the village, a shrieking and wailing of women's voices, a clamor of brazen trumpets and a clashing of swords, and a desperate cry: "The soldiers! the soldiers of Herod! They are killing our children." The young mother's face grew white with terror. She clasped her child to her bosom, and crouched motionless in the darkest corner of the room, covering him with the folds of her robe, lest he should wake and cry.
A Roman soldier came directly to the house, and immediately Artaban stood firmly in the doorway. He said, "I am all alone in this place, and I am waiting to give this jewel to the prudent captain who will leave me in peace." He showed the ruby, glistening in the hollow of his hand like a great drop of blood. The captain was amazed at the splendor of the gem. The pupils of his eyes expanded with desire, and the hard lines of greed wrinkled around his lips. He stretched out his hand and took the ruby. "March on!" he cried to his men, "there is no child here. The house is empty."
Artaban had saved the life of the child, but his heart was heavy. He prayed, "God of truth, forgive my sin! I have said the thing that is not, to save the life of a child. And two of my gifts are gone. I have spent for man that which was meant for God. Shall I ever be worthy to see the face of the King?" He left Bethlehem with only one of his three gems, a pearl, but with overflowing gratitude from the mother. She offered him a prayer with tears in her eyes as he was leaving. "Because thou hast saved the life of my little one, may the Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace."
Thirty three years passed and he was still a pilgrim seeking after the light, the Messiah. He was ready to die, and decided to make one last journey to Jerusalem. There was a gloom over the city and an agitation. People were in a hurry and Artaban asked where they were going. "We are going," they answered, "to the place called Golgotha, outside the city walls, where there is to be an execution. Have you not heard what has happened? Two famous robbers are to be crucified, and with them another, called Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has done many wonderful works among the people, so that they love him greatly. But the priests and elders have said that he must die, because he gave himself out to be the Son of God. And Pilate has sent him to the cross because he said that he was the `King of the Jews.'
Artaban listened and despaired. Surely this must be the Messiah he's been seeking for so many years. He thought to himself: "The ways of God are stranger than the thoughts of men, and it may be that I shall find the King, at last, in the hands of his enemies, and shall come in time to offer my pearl for his ransom before he dies." As he joined the steps of the multitude, he saw a woman held captive by soldiers and dragging her in the streets. As the Magian paused to look at her with compassion, she broke suddenly from the hands of her tormentors, and threw herself at his feet, clasping him around the knees. "Have pity on me," she cried, "and save me, for the sake of the God of Purity! I also am a daughter of the true religion which is taught by the Magi. My father was a merchant of Parthia, but he is dead, and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Save me from worse than death!"
Artaban trembled. 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. Twice the gift which he had consecrated to the worship of religion had been drawn to the service of humanity. This was the third trial, the ultimate probation, the final and irrevocable choice. Was it his great opportunity, or his last temptation? He could not tell. One thing only was clear in the darkness of his mind--it was inevitable. And does not the inevitable come from God?
One thing only was sure to his divided heart--to rescue this helpless girl would be a true deed of love. And is not love the light of the soul?
He took the pearl from his bosom. Never had it seemed so luminous, so radiant, so full of tender, living luster. 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 deepened, 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 into the street. Dust clouds filled the air. Artaban and the girl whom he had ransomed crouched helpless.
What had he to fear? What had he to hope? He had given away the last remnant of his tribute for 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.
The earth again quaked and a heavy tile from a nearby roof came crashing down and hit Artaban in the head. The woman bent over and held him as blood trickled down his forehead. 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 some one had spoken from the window above them, 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 an hungered 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? Three-and-- thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King."
He ceased, and the sweet voice came again. And again the maid heard it, very faint 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 brethren, thou hast 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. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips.
His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.