Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word “to manifest.” Christ was manifested to the non-Jewish world in the story of the Magi, the foreigners who recognized God’s presence and kingship in the Christ Child.
After reading the gospel, I usually ask the congregation, “How many Magi are mentioned in today’s gospel?” I usually get silence.
After I urge someone to speak up, a few brave souls shout out, “Three!”
I tell them that everyone is wrong. St. Matthew mentions no numbers.
We are so used to singing “We three kings …” that we do not listen to the text of scripture.
In the early church, the number of the Magi varied from two to twelve. By the 6th century, the tradition was that three Magi journeyed to Bethlehem to greet the newborn King. The number three was probably associated with the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
During the Middle Ages people gave the “three Magi” special kingly titles, names, and ages. Melchior was the eldest (they said that he was 60) and was King of Arabia. He gave the Christ Child gold. Forty-year-old Balthasar, King of Ethiopia, presented a gift of fragrant frankincense. The third Magi was Caspar, King of Tarsus, who presented myrrh.
These three seekers represented the three skin colors of White, Black, and Brown – all of humanity.
In 1895, Henry van Dyke wrote a long short story called “The Other Wise Man.”
I became familiar with this story by watching a full length TV movie entitled “The Fourth Wise Man” that came out in 1985 starring Martin Sheen. It’s a beautiful embellishment of the Magi’s story.
This fourth Magi is named Artaban, a Medes from Persia. Like the other Magi, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a King had been born among the Jews. Like them, he sets out to see the newborn ruler carrying treasures to give as gifts to the child – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price.”
He stops along the way to help a dying man which makes him late to meet with the caravan of the other wise men. Because he missed the caravan and he cannot cross the desert with only a horse, he is forced to sell one of his treasures to buy the camels and supplies for the trip. He then commences his journey but arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child whose parents have fled to Egypt. He saves a child’s life at the price of another one of his treasures.
Next, he travels to Egypt and to many other countries searching for Jesus and performing acts of charity along the way. After 33 years, Artaban is still a pilgrim and a seeker of truth and light. Artaban arrives in Jerusalem just in time for the crucifixion of Jesus. He spends his last treasure, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery.
He is then struck in the head by a falling roof tile and is about to die having failed in his quest to find Jesus but having done much good through charitable works.
A voice tells him, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)
He dies in a calm radiance of wonder and joy. Jesus accepted his treasures. This “Other Wise Man” found his King.
Henry Van Dyke said of this story, “I do not know where this little story came from – out of the air, perhaps. One thing is certain, it is not written in any other book, nor is it to be found among the ancient lore of the East. I have never felt as if it were my own. It was a gift, and it seemed to me as if I knew the Giver.”
May we find our King by our works of charity and love!