Fr Abbot Brendan Coffey OSB
The Magi must have been an impressive sight, riding their camels, bearing their precious gifts and the dust of a thousand miles. Traveling in ancient times was pretty miserable; but they came because they believed and no obstacle was too great. Their arrival in Jerusalem made quite a stir and King Herod had a complete meltdown when he heard about it. Herod was a crazy man, having previously murdered his own two sons and his wife. People knew how unpredictable he could be and unfortunately, they were right.
The Jewish religious leaders told Herod about the 700 year old prophecy, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and so Herod asked the Magi to come back and tell him, once they had found this infant king. The Magi followed their star and found the infant Jesus in a humble dwelling among the poor. They offered their gifts, gold, for a King, frankincense for the true God and myrrh for a sacrifice. Tradition speaks of three Magi and it even gives them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
In 1895, Henry van Dyke wrote a short novel called ‘The Other Wise Man’. It tells a fictional account of a fourth Magus whom he calls, Artaban. Like the other Magi, he too sees the signs in the heavens proclaiming that a great king has been born among the Jews. Like them, he sets out to find this king, carrying treasures to give as gifts – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price”.
Artaban stops along the way to help a dying man, which makes him late for his rendezvous with the caravan of the other three Magi. He can’t cross the desert alone on his horse and so he is forced to sell one of his treasures, the sapphire, in order to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip. When he eventually arrives in Bethlehem, he’s too late to see the child, whose parents have already fled to Egypt. Instead, he comes upon a scene of horror. Herod has sent his soldiers to kill every male child in Bethlehem under two years of age. He hurriedly sells a second treasure, the ruby, to save the life of one child amidst this terrible slaughter of innocents and then he travels to Egypt and later to many other countries, searching for Jesus whom he failed to encounter.
After 33 years, Artaban is still a pilgrim, and a seeker after the light. He arrives, an old man, in Jerusalem, on Good Friday. There he sells his last treasure, the pearl, to ransom a young woman being sold into slavery. At that moment, outside the city, the Lord Jesus dies on the cross. The skies darken and the ground shakes. A tile from a rooftop slides off and strikes Artaban on the head, mortally wounding him. As he lies dying, he hears these words from heaven, “Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.” Finally, Artaban joins Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, in a moment of Epiphany.
Christ often comes to us in the “distressing disguise” of the poor. Seek him as the Magi did and we may see other “distressing disguises”, like the mythical Artaban. The Magi, we’re told, had to “go home by another way.” Any real encounter with Christ means we need to change direction, because there is another way. To change direction is conversion, metanoia, and it is found at the heart of every serious Christian life. This is the true moment of Epiphany.