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"The Other Magi"

Perhaps you have heard the classic short story by Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man. It tells of Artaban, who also saw the star at its rising and set out to follow it yet did not arrive with the others at the house where the child was.


Detail of “Donkey, Llama, Goat, Sheep” by Eli Halpin

Matthew 2:1-12

January 7, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Perhaps you have heard the classic short story by Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man. It tells of Artaban, who also saw the star at its rising and set out to follow it yet did not arrive with the others at the house where the child was.


Like the others, Artaban sold his house and all his possessions and bought gifts to give to the newborn king of the Jews – three gems. But he is delayed, right from the start.


First, outside of Babylon, he heals a Hebrew man left for dead and the man tells him to seek the Messiah in Bethlehem. But Artaban misses the caravan with the others and has to sell the first gem to supply his solo journey across the desert.


He finally gets to Bethlehem after the others have left and after the holy family have fled, but before Herod’s soldiers arrive. He gives away a second gem to protect a mother and her baby from the massacre.


He tracks the family to Egypt and while he never finds them, he does encounter many other people to help. He feeds the hungry, and heals the sick, and comforts the captive.


Thirty-three years later, his hair has turned white as snow. Worn and weary and ready to die, he visits Jerusalem one last time. It is the season of Passover, and he hears that two robbers are to be crucified along with one mockingly called the King of the Jews. Artaban’s heart beat quickly as he wondered if this could be the one he had been searching for all these years. He had one gem left, a pearl, and he would gladly use it to save the man’s life.


But on his way, he encountered a young girl who was to be sold into slavery to settle her

dead father’s debts. Artaban struggled, as he had in Babylon and Bethlehem, between the gift he hoped to give to the King and the need right before his eyes. And just as before, he chose to help people.


Van Dyke finishes his story with Artaban receiving a vision of Christ telling him that every time he had helped the least of these he had done it to him! His journey is over. He found the King!

 

The thing I like about Van Dyke’s story is that it makes room for additional Magi; it even invites us to consider what we would have done if we had seen the star.


Would we have left everything to follow? Sold our house? Cashed in our retirement fund? All so we could buy suitable gifts.


Can you imagine leaving your family, your job, your world … to follow a star? For months? For years, even? Would anyone understand your reasons, even your loved ones?


We hear of astronomical events all the time – comets, meteor showers, eclipses – and barely take note. What would it take for you to pay attention to the rising of a new star?


Matthew says the magi make the trip because they believe that the star signals the birth of the king of the Jews. Not their king, mind you; not their religion. Most scholars say the magi were Persian followers of Zoroastrianism, a precursor to Islam.


Would you drop everything to make a pilgrimage to pay your respects to the leader of another country or something holy to a religion you don’t believe in?


I respected Queen Elizabeth immensely, but I did not take vacations days to go to England after her death, even though the description of the scene was quite moving:


“For five days in September [2022], a queue stretched ten miles across London. Through the night, in the cold, clutching cups of tea, befriending the strangers who waited alongside them, 250,000 people waited to view the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II. Some queued out of grief, some from curiosity; some came because waiting patiently in line for more than 24 hours seemed like the most British act possible, a kind of patriotic performance art.”[i]


Nice! But not me!


You’ll remember I did want to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain as part of my sabbatical. Traditionally it’s a Christian pilgrimage, though many people do it now for non-religious purposes. Still, I like the idea of following in the footsteps of the faithful and finding God along the way. I hope I’ll get the chance someday.


I’m just not sure I’d be as excited about the Kumano Trail to ancient shrines in Japan, no matter how spectacular the views; or the trek to Machu Picchu in Peru, even though the Incan capital has been voted one of the new seven wonders of the world; or the Mount Kalish pilgrimage in Tibet, despite its promises to erase the sins of a lifetime.[ii]    


Those trips are adventures, not pilgrimages, for someone like me, who doesn’t believe.


And without the fervency of belief, I don’t think I’d go.

 

My doubts make me respect the Magi even more. Matthew seems to be saying that the birth of Jesus stirred something in people, even in those who were not part of God’s chosen people.


Maybe the Magi were adventurers; or scientists pursuing discovery. Maybe they were just curious. Or maybe they were spiritual seekers trying to fill a hole in their souls.


They would not be the last.


Maybe you know someone who is seeking. Maybe a friend or a spouse or a child of yours. Or maybe it’s you!


The good news is we can all take hope in the fact that the Magi eventually find the King of the Jews and are overwhelmed with joy! It is that same King of the Jews who invites us to make a pilgrimage to this table to share in a holy meal and know that we h


[i] From Liddy Barlow’s reflections on the text for the Christian Century, January 2023 issue

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