At a recent holiday gathering, a well-educated woman seated on the sofa straightened herself and with a glint of complicity looked each one of us in the eye.
“Okay,” she said. “Can we all say what we really think about the Virgin Birth?”
Someone reached for a cracker.
After a bit of throat-clearing, another offered genially, “Well, there are virgin births in most religious traditions. Wonder what that’s all about.”
A poet chimed in, “I’ve always thought of it as a metaphor.”
A more authoritative voice then proceeded to outline the theological requirement that to be a “perfect” sacrifice, Jesus had to be born without Original Sin of a mother equally chaste.
The evening soon came to an end. I returned home, made a cup of tea, and picked up the book that I read each year at this time, “The Story of the Other Wise Man.” I opened to where I’d left off, and immediately I was back in the magical world of Artaban, the Parthian nobleman whom I had first met when I was 12, the gift of a nun who’d had the wisdom to reward classroom diligence by reading aloud to us at the end of class.
Artaban was as elegant as I remembered him, pious, devout, a prince of the Parthian people, and a Zoroastrian, a reader of stars. We meet him, in Henry Van Dyke’s classic tale, in his palace, aflame with the fire of a vision. All of the signs and prophecies of his texts point to the coming of the Victorious One, the King of Israel, from out of the house of Judah. Artaban intends to accompany any who wish to seek him.
He departs on horseback to meet the three other kings — Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar — who’ve agreed on a rendezvous time and place from which to set off across the desert. But on his way, Artaban is stopped by a dying Jew whom he, Samaritan-like, nurses back to health. He misses the agreed-upon departure and now must backtrack to compose his own costly team and hope that he can make it across the desert alone.
Artaban’s misadventures are just at their beginning. After many nights of solitary travel, he arrives in Bethlehem — after the other wise men have left and the Holy Family has fled. He flails and almost despairs, until he finds himself face to face with one of Herod’s soldiers, sent to murder every boy in the village. He has come just in time to save one of them from being killed. And so the story unfolds. Artaban spends the better years of his life continuing to chase after Jesus.
I put the book down, and thought again about the evening’s conversation. We are so modern. With the countless tools of knowledge at our disposal — our technologies and libraries, our psychological sophistication and scientific prowess, we 21st century “knowledge workers” are accustomed to getting things right — clear and precise. We like answers, and invest heavily in goals. We expect results, in order that we can move on to — well, the next goal.
If history has taught us anything, though, it is that certainty and diamond-sharp goals can be hazardous things. Our world is full of dangerously “certain” groups, hell bent on asserting their goals, today. If we pause for a nanosecond, we realize that their predecessors existed in Jesus’ time, too. They were those who looked for a messiah of the sword, someone capable of asserting earthly domination.
Is it possible that our reliance on logic and rationally-deduced knowledge can become a variant of the same thing — to defeat what we don’t yet understand, or can’t fully control? Aren’t we guilty of keeping ourselves safe and dominant by using the swords of law and finance and a certain kind of education?
Reason and high-level thinking have achieved a high standard of living for much of the world, to say nothing of gains in fighting and eradicating disease. But it doesn’t have all the answers, and Jesus came to tell a different story, using a different frame of reality. Whatever we can understand with certainty, whether by reading the stars or the laboratory test results or the strategic maps in our war rooms, isn’t big enough for the God we say we want to believe in. It is when we demand certainty that we begin also to require perfect orthodoxy and privilege and to weed out the non-conformists.
Artaban never relinquished his goal. But his is the story of a man who learned to hold it lightly, especially when it didn’t seem to work out. He lived each day in the darkness of uncertainty. As the years passed by, he fed the sick, lived among the homeless, aided the poor, never relinquishing his faith that one day he would be able to give his last remaining treasure, his finest pearl, to the King.
Artaban accepted interruptions and roadblocks, surrendered fast success to compassion, was quick to respond to the needs before him. The only thing that seemed big enough for his quest was presence and faith, a will to slog toward a moving target.
As the earlier conversation about the Virgin Birth was coming to a close, a newcomer to the group had spoken up.
“I don’t pretend to understand what it all means,” he said. “But I take the words with me every day, when I set out. I let them fill me with their mystery, and I feel them flow before me into my days. They fill me up and they create a space for me to move into. And somehow, in a way that I don’t profess to understand, I feel them in this way forming me — my faith and my actions. It’s a mystery.”
Some were baffled by this; some fell silent. I felt that he had hit the mark. Artaban is each one of us, or can be. One day, each of us will arrive in our own version of Jerusalem. The question seems to be: Will we be compelled there by certainty or by faith?
I pick up my book again, deeply grateful that when we schoolgirls had completed a heavy session of reason and memory, we were invited into the realm of mystery. I am grateful for the story of Mary and Joseph, the Magi, and Artaban, because they are stories that hinge not on facts, but on the gateway to that other universe through which we also journey.