The story of the Magi is among the best loved stories of all time. We commonly refer to them as the Three Kings who came from the East to pay homage to the newborn Messiah in Bethlehem. It is not certain however if they were actually three, or even kings at all. The idea came about because Matthew tells us in his gospel that they offered the Child three gifts, befitting a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Through the years, many stories have been written, which draw inspiration from the inexhaustible richness of the original Christmas story. One such story is the legend of Artaban, which I always loved listening to as a boy.
The story goes that Artaban was supposed to be the fourth wise man to travel with the other three to Jerusalem in search of “the newborn King of the Jews.” Unfortunately, he failed to join his companions because he got delayed when on the way he met a dying man and attended to his needs. He tried to catch up with them in Bethlehem, but by the time he arrived, the soldiers of Herod had started the massacre of the children. Meanwhile, he saved a baby by bribing one of the soldiers with his treasure.
Artaban’s long search for the Messiah brought him to Egypt and to every part of Palestine. But every time he had a close chance, some call for help would intervene and prevent him from meeting Jesus.
Finally, after thirty-three years he arrived in Jerusalem, now sick, old and poor since he had spent all his treasures (intended for the newborn Messiah) in his works of charity. From a distance he saw Jesus hanging on the cross, and he recognized in him the One whom he had sought all his life.
Artaban died on the same hour that Jesus died on the cross. But before he expired, Jesus appeared to him and thanked him for feeding him when he was hungry and giving him drink when he was thirsty… When Artaban asked the Lord what he meant, Jesus continued, “For whenever you did these to the least of my brethren, you did them to me.” Then peacefully, Artaban breathed his last, knowing that he finally found the King who had accepted all his gifts.
The story of Artaban is not historical, of course, but it beautifully illustrates the significance of Epiphany from a different perspective.
Artaban may have missed the star of Bethlehem, but he finally found his King. How? By allowing himself to be guided by an inner compass, the star within him and within each of us. It is the image of God imprinted in our heart that mirrors and recognizes the image of God in others. Some call it conscience, that little voice from within that tells us to do the good. St. Augustine identifies it with Christ himself who lives in us and who reaches out to the same Christ who lives in others. The saintly bishop, in fact, believes that in the end, “there will be one Christ, loving himself” (erit unus Christus, amans seipsum).
When I think of the overwhelming response of countless individuals and institutions to the appeal for help from Kabankalan and the southern towns of Negros, I realize that there are still many Artabans living among us. Victims of typhoon Odette themselves, they reach out to those who are worse affected and in need of greater help.
Likewise, the swelling number of volunteers who generously sacrifice their time and resources to ensure that candidates of integrity and competence are elected into office this May is a sign that Artaban is alive in many of our citizens.
The many youths who are passionate in their advocacy for creation, the people who quietly extend help to their needy neighbor and brighten up their Christmas… these are the Artabans of today, who continue to follow the star of Christ in their heart.
One last item. At a certain point, the three wise men lost track of the star until they searched the scriptures and received confirmation from the priests that “the Christ was to be born… in Bethlehem of Judea.” Every true sign leading to God is authenticated by the Word and interpreted by the Church.
As Pope Benedict XVI puts it delectably, “Let us allow ourselves to be guided by the star that is the Word of God, let us follow it in our lives, walking with the Church in which the Word has pitched his tent. Our road will always be illumined by a light that no other sign can give us. And we too shall become stars for others, a reflection of that light which Christ caused to shine upon us. Amen.”*