Artaban's Gifts -
In the days of Herod the king, when the Saviour of the world, was born in a poor cave near Bethlehem, an enormous star suddenly lit up the sky over the countries of the East. The star shone with a bright, dazzling light and slowly but steadily moved in one direction, towards the land of the Hebrews. The astronomers, or magi as they were called, took note of this new light. They thought it was a sign from God that somewhere had been born the Great King, whose coming had been foretold in the Hebrew books, the King of Righteousness, the Deliverer of people from evil, the Teacher of a new, righteous life. Several of them, who devoted themselves especially diligently to the study of God's truth on earth, and were grieved by the extent of men's wickedness, decided to go seek for the newborn King, to worship Him and serve Him. Just where they would find Him, they didn't know; perhaps they would have to travel a long time. At that time the route towards the Hebrew land was dangerous. They decided to gather first in a specified place, and then to proceed together in a caravan, following the star in search of the Great King.
Together with the other magi, the great Persian wise man Artaban prepared for the journey. He sold all his possessions, his elegant home in the capital, and with the money he bought three precious gems: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl. These jewels were extremely costly; a whole fortune was paid for them. Indeed, they were each uniquely beautiful. One shone like a piece of blue sky in a starry night; another burned brighter than a brilliant sunrise; the third surpassed in whiteness the snowy mountain peaks. All of this, together with a heart full of the most fervent, unreserved love, Artaban was going to lay at the feet of the newly-born King of righteousness and goodness.
In his house Artaban gathered for the last time his close friends, said his good-byes and departed on his journey. It was several days' ride to the gathering place, but Artaban was confident he wouldn't be late. He had a strong, swift horse; he had precisely calculated the time it would take, and each day he covered the appointed distance. The last twenty-four hours arrived with only a few dozen miles to his destination, and he chose to ride all night in order to arrive by dawn. His faithful horse was still far from worn out; the night breeze was cool; in the infinite sky above shone the new star, like a bright lamp burning before the altar of God. "There it is, God's sign!" said Artaban to himself, keeping his eyes fixed on the star. "The Great King is coming to us from the sky, and soon, Lord, I shall see You."
"Faster, my friend! Increase your pace!" he encouraged his horse, gently slapping the reins.
The horse responded, his hooves pounding louder and faster along the road through the forest of palm trees. The darkness began to dissipate; here and there came the chirping of awakening birds. One could sense the nearness of morning. Suddenly the horse drew up short, snorted and started to move backwards. Artaban peered into the half-light and there, almost under the horse's very hooves, he saw a man lying. He quickly dismounted and inspected the prostrate figure. He turned out to be a Jew, exhausted by a raging fever. One could have taken him for dead but for the weak, barely audible groans which broke intermittently from his cracked lips. Artaban deliberated: to pass by, to hasten to the meeting place, leaving the sick man was something his conscience wouldn't allow; but to remain with the Jew in order to revive him would take several hours, and he would be late for the rendez-vous; the caravan would leave without him. What shall I do? thought Artaban. I'll go on, he decided, and he lifted his foot into the stirrup. But the sick man, sensing that his last hope was about to abandon him, groaned so pitiably that its pain resonated in the magus's heart.
"Great God!" he prayed. "You know my thoughts. You know my efforts to see you. Direct my steps! Is it not your voice of love which is speaking in my heart. I cannot pass by; I must help this unfortunate Jew."
With these words the magi returned to the sick man; he loosened his clothing and brought him some water from a nearby stream. He refreshed the man's face and moistened his dry lips. From a pack attached to his saddle his obtained some medicine, mixed it with some wine and poured it into the Jew's mouth; he rubbed his chest and hands, gave him something to sniff, and so spent many hours with the sick man. Dawn had long ago come and gone, the sun already stood high in the sky; it was approaching noon when the Jew was finally able to get to his feet. He didn't know how to thank the kind stranger.
"Who are you?" the Jew asked Artaban. "Tell me for whom I and my family should pray to God until the last of our days? And why are you so sad? What grief afflicts you?"
Artaban told him who he was and where he was going. "My friends have certainly left without me," he said sorrowfully, "and I shall not see the King of my desires."
The Jew's face lit up.
"Do not be sad, my benefactor. I can repay you in a very small way for your kindness. In my sacred scriptures it is said that the King of righteousness promised by God will be born in the city of Bethlehem of Judah. Even if your friends have left, you can make you way to Bethlehem and, if the Messiah has been born, you will find Him there."
The Jew thanked the Persian magi once again and the two men went their separate ways. Artaban turned back; it would be folly to attempt the journey through the desert alone; he needed to hire some men for protection, to buy some camels and load them with provisions and water. A week went by. He was obliged to sell one of the gems in order to equip his caravan, but Artaban didn't sorrow too much; he still had two gems. The main thing was not to be late in reaching the King. He hurried the servants, and the caravan moved as quickly as possible. Finally, they reached Bethlehem. Tired, dusty, but happy, he rode up to the first house. He went in and showered the host with questions.
"Did some men from the East come here to Bethlehem? Where did they go? Where are they now?"
The mistress of the house, a young woman, was nursing a baby and at first shied away from the stranger, but then she calmed down and related that a few days earlier some foreigners had come in search of Mary of Nazareth and had brought her baby some expensive gifts. Where they had gone-she didn't know. That very night Mary together with Joseph and the Baby had left Bethlehem to go into hiding.
"People say they went to Egypt, that Joseph had a dream and that the Lord ordained that they should flee from here."
While the mother spoke the baby fell asleep and a pure smile played on his pretty, innocent face. Artaban hadn't had time to think about this news, about what he should do next, when a commotion broke from the street: wild cries, the clanging of weapons, women wailing. Half-dressed women, their heads uncovered, their faces contorted with fear, ran through the settlement carrying their infants and crying: "Flee to safety! Herod's soldiers are killing our children!"
The face of the young mother paled, her eyes grew large. Pressing the sleeping infant to her breast, she could only say, "Save the child! Save him, and God will save you!"
Without a moment's thought, Artaban rushed to the door; there just beyond the threshold stood the troop's captain, and behind him could be seen the bestial faces of the soldiers, their swords red with the blood of innocent children. Artaban's hand as if automatically reached into his chest; he produced a bag from which he extracted one of the remaining gems and gave it to the captain.
The latter had never seen such a treasure; he clutched it greedily and rushed his soldiers away to continue their dreadful business.
The woman fell to her knees before Artaban. "May God bless you for my child! You are seeking for the King of righteousness, of love and kindness. May His face shine before you and may He look upon you with the love with which I am now looking at you."
Artaban carefully raised the woman to her feet; tears of mixed joy and sadness ran down his cheeks.
"God of truth, forgive me! For the sake of this woman and her child I gave away the precious stone which was meant for you. Will I ever see your face? Here once again I am late. I shall follow after you into Egypt." The poor magus walked for a long, long time, seeking the King of Righteousness. He traveled through many countries, he saw many different peoples, but nowhere did he find the desired object of his wanderings. His heart ached and more than once he wept bitter tears.
"Lord," he thought," how much grief, suffering and unhappiness there is everywhere. How soon will you reveal yourself and bring consolation to people's lives?"
He helped the poor, cared for the sick, consoled the unfortunate, visited prisoners. From the sale of the first gem he had money, and he spent this on helping his neighbor. The last gem, however, he carefully guarded near his heart, thinking that at least this gift he could some day bring to the King, when he found Him.
Thirty-three years had gone by since Artaban had left his homeland. His figure had become stooped, his hair white, but his heart still burned with love for the One Whom he sought so long.
One day the elderly magus heard that the Anointed One of God had appeared in Judea, and that He was performing many wondrous deeds-by a word He healed the sick, raised the dead, made saints of sinners and hopelessly wicked men. Artaban's heart began to race with joy.
"At last," he thought, trembling with emotion, "I shall find you and be able to serve you."
Arriving in Judea, he discovered that everyone was going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. There, too, was the Prophet Jesus whom the magus so desired to see. Together with crowds of the faithful Artaban reached the Holy City. He found a great commotion; great multitudes of people were surging along the streets. "Where are they hurrying?" asked Artaban. "To Golgotha. It is a hill on the outskirts of the city where today, together with two thieves, Jesus Christ of Nazareth is to be crucified. He claimed to be the Son of God, the King of the Jews."
Artaban fell to the ground, weeping bitterly.
"Again... again I am late. I never had the opportunity to see you, Lord, to serve you." But perhaps it isn't too late after all. I'll go to His torturers and offer them my last remaining gem. It may be that I can buy His freedom.
Artaban arose and hastened after the crowd to Golgotha. Suddenly, at one of the cross-streets, a contingent of soldiers barred his way. They were dragging a girl to prison. Recognizing Artaban as a fellow-countryman, she seized a corner of his clothing.
"Pity me!" she begged. "Free me. I too am from Persia. My father came here to trade; he brought me and then fell ill and died. For the debts he incurred they want to sell me into slavery, for a life of shame. Save me. Save me from dishonor, save me, I beg you!"
The old magus shuddered. The former battle again broke out in his heart-to keep the gem for the Great King or give it away for the sake of the unfortunate girl? Pity for the girl won out. Artaban reached into the pouch at his breast and took out his last treasure; he gave the gemstone to the girl.
"Here, buy with this your freedom, my daughter. For thirty-three years I have guarded this treasure for my King. Evidently I am unworthy of bringing Him a gift."
While he spoke, the sky grew clouded. It was midday and yet it was dark as night. The earth shook and groaned heavily, as it were. Thunder crashed, lightning ripped the sky from end to end; a great cracking was heard; houses shook, walls rocked and stones showered down. A heavy slate tore off the roof and hit the head of the old man. He fell to the ground and lay there, pale and streaming with blood. The girl bent down to help him. Artaban moved his lips in a barely audible whisper. His face was radiant. The dying man was looking at Someone standing invisibly before him. "Lord," he uttered, "but when did I see you hungry and fed you? When did I see you thirsty and gave you to drink? Thirty-three years I looked for you and not once did I see your face; never was I able to serve you, My King." Like the slight evening breeze which caressed the hair of the dying man, there came from above a tender, unearthly voice:
"Truly I say to you, all that you ever did for your needy brothers you did for Me."
Artaban's face became transfigured. His heart at peace, he lifted his eyes thankfully to heaven and fell asleep unto all ages.
The prolonged journeying of the old magi had come to an end. He had found at last the Great King, the Saviour; his gifts had been accepted.
(Translated from the Russian in Christos-Zhizn Nasha, compiled by Ye. N. Sumarokov, reprinted by the Russian Orthodox Youth Committee, New York.)[../../_private/oabot.htm]