This is one of my favorite Christmas and Easter stories. This is the condensed version that is part of a collection of stories, poems, quotes, etc. that was given to me when I first joined the Church. You can read the background history online. Printable PDF version
Artaban sat down upon the ground in despair and covered his face with his hands. “How can I cross the desert with no food and a spent horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire, and buy a train of camels and provisions for the journey. I may never overtake my friends. Only God the Merciful knows whether or not I shall lose my purpose because I have tarried to show mercy.”
Several days later when Artaban’s train arrived at Bethlehem, the streets were deserted. It was rumored that Herod was sending soldiers, presumably to enforce some new tax and the men had taken their flocks and herds back into the hills beyond his reach.
The door of one dwelling was open, and Artaban could hear a mother singing a lullaby to her child. He entered and introduced himself. The woman told him that it was now the third day since the three wise wise men had appeared in Bethlehem. They had found Joseph and Mary and the younf child, and had their gifts at his feet. Then they disappeared as mysteriously as they come.
Joseph had taken his wife and the babe that same night and had secretly fled. It was whispered that they were going far away into Egypt.
As Artaban listened, the baby reached up his dimpled hand and touched his cheek and smiled. His heart warmed at the touch. Then suddenly outside there arose a wild confusion of sounds. Women were shrieking. Then a desperate cry said, ” The soldiers of Herod are killing the children!”
Artaban went to the doorway. A band of soldiers came hurrying down the street with dripping swords and bloody hands. The captain approached the door to thrust Artaban aside but Artaban did not stir. His face was as calm as though he was watching the stars. His outstretched hand revealed a giant ruby. He said, “I am waiting to give this jewel to the prudent captain who will go on his way and leave this house alone.: The captain, amazed at the splendor of the jem, took it and said to his men, “March on; there are no children here.”
Then Artaban prayed, “Oh, God, forgive me my sin. I have spent for men that which was meant for God. Shall I ever be worthy to see the face of the King?”
But the voice of the woman, weeping for joy in the shadows behind him said softly, “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 the peace.”
Then Artaban, still following the King, went into Egypt, seeking everywhere for traces of the little family that fled before him from Bethlehem. For many years Artaban continued his search. His journey led him by the great pyramids. He visited an obscure house in Alexandria, where he took council with a Hebrew rabbi who told him to seek the King not among the rich but among the poor. He pressed on from place to place, passing through countries where famine lay heavy upon the land and the poor were crying for bread. He made his dwelling in plague-stricken cities where the sick were languishing in bitter companionship of helpless misery. He visited the oppressed and the afflicted in the gloom of subterranean prisons. He searched the crowded wretchedness of slave markets. Though he found no one to worship, he found many to serve. As the years passed, he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick and comforted the captive.
One morning, Artaban stood alone for a moment at sunrise, waiting at the gate of a Roman prison. He had taken from its secret resting place in his bosom, the last of the jewels that he was saving for the King. Shifting beams of azure and scarlet trembled on the surface. It seemed to have absorbed some of the colors of the lost ruby which he had long ago given up for the child’s life, as well as shimmering a beautiful spectrum of hues of the other priceless gems he had given up on his journey in order to serve others. This most precious jewel had become more priceless because it had long been carried close to the warmth of a human heart.
Thirty-three years had now passed away since Artaban began his search and he was still a pilgrim. His was now white as snow. He knew his life’s end was near but he was still desperate with hope that he would find the King. He had come for the last time to Jerusalem.
It was near the season of the Passover and the city was thronged with strangers. There was a singular agitation visible in the multitude. A secret human tide was sweeping them towards the Damascus gate.
Artaban inquired where they were going. One answered, “We are going to the execution on Golgotha, outside the city walls. Two robbers are to be crucified and with them another called Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has done many wonderful works among the people. But the priests and elders have said that he must die, because he claims to be the Son of God. Pilate sent him to the cross because he said that he was the ‘King of the Jews’.”
How strangely these familiar words fell upon the tired heart of Artaban! They had led him for a lifetime over land and sea. And now they came to him darkly and mysteriously like a message of despair. The King had been denied and cast out. He was now about to perish. Perhaps he was already dying. Could he be the same for whom the star had appeared thirty-three long years ago?
Artaban’s heart beat loudly within him. He thought, “The ways of God are stranger than the thoughts of men, and it may be that I shall yet find the King, and be able to ransom him from death by giving my treasure to his enemies.”
But as Artaban started toward Calvary he saw a troop of Macedonian soldiers approaching, dragging a sobbing young girl with a torn dress and disheveled hair. When Artaban paused, the girl broke away from her tormentors and threw herself at his feet, her arms clasping around his knees.
“Have pity on me,” she cried, “and save me, for the sake of the God of purity. My father was also of the Magi but he is dead and I am to be sold as a slave to pay his debts!”
Artaban trembled as he again felt the old conflict arising in his soul. It was the same that he experienced in the palm grove of Babylon and in the cottage at Bethlehem and under similar circumstances. Many times the gift which he had consecrated to the King had been drawn from his hand for the service of humanity. Would he fall now again? One thing was clear, he must rescue this helpless child from evil.
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 and said, “Daughter, this is the ransom. It is the last of my treasures which I had hoped to keep for the King.”
While he yet spoke, the darkness of the sky thickened and the shuddering tremors of an earthquake ran through the ground.
The houses rocked. The soldiers fled in terror. Artaban sank beside a protecting wall. What had he to fear? What had he to hope for? He had given away the last remnant of his tribute for the King. The quest way over and he had failed. What else mattered? As one lingering pulsation of the earthquake quivered beneath him, a heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck him on the temple. He lay breathless and pale. The rescued girl leaned over him fearing that he was dead. Then there came a still, small voice through the twilight. It was like distant music. The notes were clear but the girl could not understand the words.
Then the lips of Artaban began to move, as if in answer and she heard him say, “Not so, my Lord; for when saw I thee an hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty and gave thee to 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? Thirty-three years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face nor ministered unto thee, my King.”
As he ceased, the sweet voice came again. And again the girl heard it, faintly and far away. But now she understood the words which said, “Verily, I say unto thee, that inasmuch as thou hast done it unto 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. One long, last breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips.
His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The other Wise Man had found the King.