Artaban

Gramma El’s Stories

Good day, dear readers, on this first day of December and very near Christmas Day!  I wish each of you a blessed Christmas Season and today I want to share with you one of the sweetest stories ever written.  It will be my Christmas Greeting Card to each of you.  It is a story written by Henry Van Dyke over a hundred years ago.  He says the story came to him “as if in a dream.”  In his dream, he imagined  that there had been a fourth Wise Man, and that his name had been Artaban.

 

This was his dream:  Artaban, the Median, and his three companions were the Magi who searched the skies for promises that were foreseen by the stars.  And there came a night on which a new star shone in the sky.  Artaban and his friends believed it was the promised sign that would lead them to where the sacred Child would be born. Artaban was to meet the other three Magi at the ancient Temple of Babylon in ten days and from there, they would travel together to Jerusalem, to see and worship the promised one who shall be born King of Israel.  Artaban said to his father, “I have sold my house and my possessions, and bought these three jewels – a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl – to carry them as tribute to the King.”  He drew out the jewels – one blue as a fragment of the night sky, one redder than a ray of sunrise, and one as pure as the peak of a snow mountain at twilight.  He gathered up the jewels and replaced them in his girdle.

 

Artaban must indeed ride wisely and well if he would keep the appointed hour with the other Magi.  Artaban pressed onward until he arrived at nightfall of the tenth day, beneath the shattered walls of populous Babylon.  As they passed through a dark gloomy grove, his horse gave a quick breath of anxiety and stood stock-still, before a dark object in the shadow of the last palm-tree.  Artaban dismounted.  The dim starlight revealed the form of a man lying across the road.  It was the body of one of the poor Hebrew exiles.  The bony fingers closed on Artaban’s skirt and held him fast.  Artaban would not reach his companions in time but he turned back to the sick man.  Hour after hour he tended the sick man until he was able to seek more care in the hands of fellow Hebrews.  The Hebrew gave Artaban this blessing because of his care of the sick.  He told Artaban that the promised Messiah would be born not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem of Judah. 

 

Artaban rode swiftly on but when he arrived at the meeting place, his companions had started their journey.  Artaban covered his head with despair.  He thought, “I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire, and buy a train of camels, and provision for the journey.  Only God the merciful knows whether I shall not lose the sight of the King because I tarried to show mercy.” With great sorrow and disappointment, Artaban sold his sapphire for what he needed to continue his journey. Then he traveled on through the desert where by day the fierce heat pressed its intolerable burden on the quivering air.  By night a bitter blighting chill followed the fever of the day. Through heat and cold, Artaban moved steadily onward until he arrived at Bethlehem.  He drew near, weary, but full of hope, bearing his ruby and his pearl to offer to the King.

 

The streets of the village seemed to be deserted but from an open door he heard the sound of a woman’s voice singing softly.  The young mother laid her babe in its cradle, and rose to minister to the wants of the strange guest that fate had brought into her house. But suddenly there came a noise of wild confusion, 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 crouched motionless in the darkest corner of the room.  Artaban went quickly and stood in the doorway of the house.  The captain of the band approached the threshold to thrust him aside.  But Artaban did not stir.  He said, “I am 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 his hand like a great drop of blood.  “March on!” the captain said. “There is no child here. The house is still.”  He stretched out his hand and took the ruby.  Artaban 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?” But the voice of the woman behind him said gently, “May the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace.”

 

The Other Wise Man traveled on and on, ever seeking the promised Messiah.  In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, he found none to worship, but 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.  It seemed almost that he had forgotten his quest but for a moment as he stood alone at sunrise waiting at the gate of a Roman prison, he took from a secret resting-place in his bosom the pearl, the last of his jewels.  It seemed to have absorbed some of the reflection of the colors of the lost sapphire and ruby.  The pearl had become more luminous and precious the longer it was carried close to the warmth of the beating heart.

 

Three-and-thirty years of the life of Artaban had passed away.  His hair was now white as the wintry snow.  Worn and weary and ready to die, but still looking for the King, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem.  On this day there was a singular agitation visible in the multitude.  Artaban inquired of them the cause of the tumult.  They answered, “We are going,” they said, “to the place called Golgotha where Jesus of Nazareth is to be crucified.  The priests and elders have said that he must die because he gave himself out to be the Son of God.”  Artaban’s heart beat unsteadily but he said within 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.”

 

So the old man followed the multitude with slow and painful steps.  Just beyond the entrance, a group of soldiers were dragging a young girl with torn dress and disheveled hair.  As Artaban passed by, she broke away from her tormentors and begged that he save her, gasping out her story that her father had died and she was seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Here again was the old conflict of his soul but one thing was certain in 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.  He laid it in the hand of the slave.  “This is thy random, daughter!  It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the King.”

 

As he spoke, the earth heaved convulsively like the breast of one who struggles with mighty grief. A tile fell and struck the old man on the temple.  He lay breathless and pale, his head resting against the young girl’s shoulder.  Then there came a voice which she did not understand but the old man’s lips  began to speak:

 

“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.  Now it seemed as though the young woman understood the words:

 

“Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou has done it unto me.”

 

A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban.  One long, last breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips.  His journey was ended.  The Other Wise Man had found the King.

 

 

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