Benedictine life at its core is about seeking—seeking God, seeking Christ in our everyday lives. Seeking God is not just a momentary experience, it is a lifelong quest. As Christmas approaches this week, I am aware that so many people in our country and around the world, myself among them, are seeking meaning, seeking healing, seeking normalcy in a Covid-saturated, violent and divided world. So many people are disheartened, their dreams shattered, their lives, their health, their economic well-being uncertain. So many are seeking God.
I am reminded of a Christmas story that first captured my imagination many years ago. It is a touching story that offers comfort to those who feel they have missed life’s greatest opportunities or experienced frustrating detours on their path to God. A Christmas story for all of us.
The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke is framed on the backdrop of St. Matthew’s account of the Magi. Every Epiphany we hear the story of the Wise Men who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Tradition numbers them at three and names them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. In Henry van Dyke’s story, we hear about a fourth wise man named Artaban of Persia. His gifts are a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl of great price. But Artaban is never to have the satisfaction of presenting his gifts to the Infant King. Van Dyke writes of Artaban, “there are some kinds of failure that are better than success.”
In the story, Artaban, like the other Magi, observes the resplendent Star in the heavens. He sees the Star as fulfilling the ancient prophecy foretelling the birth of the King of Israel, a Savior for all humanity. Artaban is a man full of passion, great intellect, and many gifts, but torn by self-doubt. Hastening to join his fellow Magi for the long journey to Judea, he pauses to help a dying man in Babylon, and is left behind by the Magi’s caravan. Since he is unable to cross the desert with only his horse, he is forced to sell his sapphire to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip. Artaban must now travel alone.
Arriving in Bethlehem, he again misses his fellow Magi, and even more tragically, he misses the opportunity to give homage to the Infant King. He attempts to catch up with Joseph, Mary, and the Infant King on their journey to Egypt, but falls behind because he stops to assist a mother whose child would be killed by Herod’s troops. With no other alternative, he offers the ruby, his second gift, to ransom the child’s life.
After searching to no avail in Egypt for the Infant King, Artaban continues travelling from country to country, visiting the oppressed, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and comforting the captive.
After 33 years, Artaban providentially arrives in Jerusalem at Passover. He is now an aged, white-haired man, broken in spirit. He learns that a great person is about to be led away to be crucified. When people tell him about the man’s life and teachings, Artaban realizes that this man was the King he has been seeking throughout his life. Perhaps he could use his pearl of great price to secure his King’s release. Just as he was about to encounter Jesus at Golgotha, he is diverted by the pleas of a young Persian woman about to be sold into slavery. He faces the dilemma: will he go to meet the King he had searched for these many years or assist the young woman in her great need?
Characteristically Artaban takes the pearl from his purse, and treating the woman with great compassion, offers it for her freedom. But he is also saddened that he no longer has any gifts to offer his King. He has failed in his quest to find Jesus. But as he lay dying from a blow to his head, he hears the gentle voice of Jesus: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father…whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:34,40).
This extraordinary tale shows how searching for God can bring frustration and disappointment, even a sense of failure. Although Artaban’s greatest desire was God, he seems to doubt that he will receive all that his heart truly desired. But without realizing it, Artaban encounters Christ throughout his life every time he showed his love and compassion to the brokenhearted and distressed. The Scriptures tell us “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matt.6:21). In this story, his heart becomes the treasure that Artaban ultimately offers the King.
What a message of hope for us all at Christmas! God know and loves the deepest desires of our hearts. God is with us when we search for meaning in our lives and cannot find it. God is with us when hunger and thirst for peace, and see violence escalating. God is with us in the people, events, and circumstances of our lives, and surprises us in the here-and-now. It is said that God hides in plain sight.
God can be both very present and very elusive at the same time. Like Artaban, I often wonder why good plans fail, why tragedy strikes the good, why the God that I seek is often not the God I find. The story of the Other Wise Man teaches me that when we desire to offer our most precious gifts to God, the desire itself becomes gift.
As we soon celebrate Christmas, may we pause to contemplate the love of our dear Messiah who was born to set us free. In the darkness of our world today, may we see the light of a rising Star. As we seek Jesus, the Word-made-Flesh, may we open our hearts anew to the myriad forms and myriad ways God disguises himself within the context of our very human lives.
By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB