This coming Sunday, January 7, 2024, most Western Christian churches will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Three Magi – Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar – to Bethlehem to behold and give honor to the newborn Christ King, Jesus. Tradition tells us that the Magi brought offerings of gold (a symbol of earthly kingship), frankincense (a symbol of deity) and myrrh (an embalming substance and symbol of death). The Magi were not Jewish, and thus their visit is considered the initial manifestation (“Epiphany”) of Christ (“the Anointed One” or “Messiah”) to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). In Eastern Christian tradition, the feast is known as “Theophany” (encounter with a deity).
This holiday season, just before Christmas, I took down from my shelf a small (in both length and physical size) book given to my family by a close cousin. The book is entitled “The Story of the Other Wise Man” and was written in 1895 by American author, educator, diplomat and Presbyterian clergyman, Henry van Dyke. (Readers of these posts may recall a brief reference to this very book in the article “To Our Boys” in which my great uncle, Simon Fitzpatrick, counsels his two sons to “Remember the story of The Other Wise Man.”). It took me less than an hour to re-read it (a simple recording of my read-through can be accessed here).
The best introduction to this little book which I could provide is van Dyke’s own, a simple paragraph placed just before his first chapter:
You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they travelled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem. But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it, yet did not arrive with his brethren in the presence of the young child Jesus? Of the great desire of this fourth pilgrim, and how it was denied, yet accomplished in the denial; of his many wanderings and the probations of his soul; of the long way of his seeking, and the strange way of his finding, the One whom he sought – I would tell the tale as I have heard fragments of it in the Hall of Dreams, in the palace of the Heart of Man.
Asked where the story came from, van Dyke replied, “I do not know where it came from – out of the air, perhaps. One thing is certain, it is not written in any other book, nor is it to be found among the ancient lore of the East. And yet I have never felt as if it were my own. It was a gift. It was sent to me; and it seemed as if I knew the Giver, though His name was not spoken.”
The central message of the Christmas story is one of long-held hope fulfilled and the redemptive power of unconditional love. It also is an exquisite example of a theme that one need not be a scholar to observe running throughout the many stories of the Bible: God often acts in ways that may make no sense to us mortals but are in fact part of His greater plan for our ultimate good. (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9 ). God promises a king who will bring salvation to a wounded world and whose kingdom will last forever, then has that king born in a cave attended by livestock and later killed cruelly in the humiliating manner of a criminal for the simple act of delivering God’s own message of love and forgiveness.
Who can blame the people of that time for looking upon that man’s life and mission as abject failures and his message without value? But they (and we, if we are honest with ourselves) naturally judge by the logic and standards of the material world; it is only by the light of faith that the true purpose and role of any act or actor in the divine plan can be perceived: in this case, the humility, suffering and willing death of one man redeemed, once and forever, the sins of all mankind, and the power of that astonishingly counterintuitive story enabled its spread to the furthest corners of the earth.
But all of that is well known and has been exhaustively covered through the centuries. What makes van Dyke’s story so different or special that I would be so presumptuous as to recommend it heartily to everyone I know?
One need not to have lived long to have encountered personal disappointments – promises broken, dreams unfulfilled, efforts thwarted, missions unaccomplished. While it is tempting to view these setbacks as failures, and to dwell negatively on their impact on personal life plans and self-confidence, it may be the case that what appears in the moment to be lamentable may in fact result in a far greater, though possibly unknown, benefit. This, I believe, is the central point of the story of The Other Wise Man.
The world is an odd and sometimes contradictory place, and, as they say, God works in mysterious ways. We are likely to go through our entire lives unaware of the impact we can have on the lives of others. A stray observation, a kind word, a gentle correction, a piece of friendly advice, the offer of a helping hand – any and all of these actions can offer hope, direction, or assistance that can yield results unforeseen or even unforeseeable at the time. The history of mankind is replete with examples of such fateful “coincidences.”
We often think that only grand, sweeping, global or herculean efforts can change the world for good. But if that were the case there could be little hope for such change, as few of us alone are capable of such gestures. St. Thérèse of Lisieux understood this; her “Little Way” encourages us to do ordinary things with extraordinary love, and leave the rest to God, who specializes in making very much from very little.
I encourage everyone to read van Dyke’s little book about The Other Wise Man. Those who do may come to a special appreciation of the brief poem he included at its very beginning:
Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul,
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal;
While he who walks in love may wander far,
Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.
Is it too much to hope that the spirit and message of Christmas may overcome the seemingly overwhelming darkness that threatens our world today? What would van Dyke say?
Warmest wishes to all for a happy, healthy and hopeful new year!