Here we are at last—the stable, with the young girl and her special, magical child, the shepherds and their sheep, summoned by angels, the wise men from the East, who followed a star to this very spot. The whole story fits together so perfectly, like a fairy tale. Perhaps, too perfectly, too magically. We may have come to think of the story of Christmas as a beautiful story for children, like Santa Claus and the reindeer, the elf on the shelf, Frosty the Snowman. Christmas is something you outgrow, as you get older and wiser, as you read the scholarship, you realize, of course, it wasn’t like that, really—not in December, no wise men for years. We are much too grown up to believe in such things. But this version is charming. It makes us smile, we might even laugh, we are so sophisticated. Since we’re in the mood for stories, I have another for us to share, on this storied night. It’s an old one, called The Three Kings’
Ride. It was first told by Ruth Sawyer—I pass it along to you, with a few additions.
Once upon a time there was a Roman soldier, named Aelius Antoninus. He lived a century or so after the life of Jesus, and he had heard of him, vaguely, as a troublemaker from the other side of the empire, who was executed, like so many others. He heard that some people thought this Jesus was the son of God, the savior of the world, and he laughed. Aelius spent his career on the northern and western frontiers of the empire, keeping the barbarians at bay. When his army days were done he retired to sunny Spain, where he supervised gladiatorial games for the local governor, coaching new fighters. An easy job for one of his skills, pleasant enough. Maybe a bit boring, compared to the adventures of his youth. So sometimes he would go out riding by himself, into the countryside just above Grenada, where Europe touches Africa.
One night, towards the close of the year, he was out riding like this, and he saw three figures approaching, on what looked like camels. He rubbed his eyes—who travels by camel in Spain?—but they came closer, and there they were, greeting him, asking them if there was a town nearby, with a place to water their animals. Who are you? he asked, and what is your business? We are travelling East, they replied, to see the new king that is about to be born, the One the stars have foretold. We bring him gifts, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Aelius laughed. Are you crazy? That’s out of a story, that all happened years ago, when my grandfather was a boy. Your “king” grew up and was killed by Rome, like every other rebel, and dreamer. End of story.
He was killed, they answered, and he rose up again—death could not defeat him. He comes into our world with new life for all, and we ride to meet him every year through the ages, to witness the birth of our hope, and the hope of all Creation. Would you like to join us, and kneel with us at his feet? For everyone who seeks him, will find what he seeks. Aelius laughed again. Nice try, he said, save your fairy tales for children—I live in the real world. The gold of Rome and the spices of the market are all I trade in. Then it may be long, until we see you again, said the traveler. God bless you on your way. And the three rode off, into the darkness. Aelius shrugged, and returned home.
As the years passed, his friends and those he knew in the city grew old, and died, but Aelius himself did not change. After decades he finally left, unable to bear the talk and the stares, and the memories of all those he had lost. He roamed around the empire, which was changing, even as he did not. He fought in battles again, but no blade or arrow ever seemed to reach him. He sailed the seas, and no storm ever claimed him. Down through the centuries he wandered, like a living ghost.
In Italy, more than a thousand years after he talked with the three travellers, he heard of a young man named Francisco. Everyone said he had been born rich, but had given it all away to the poor, and now lived on the streets. Aelius found him in the square one day and asked him, you fool! why did you give up all that gold? Francisco laughed and said, I can hear God so much better, now that gold is no longer jingling in my ears all the time. And look at what a beautiful palace I have built! And he sat down, next to a group of beggars and animals, who had gathered round to hear him talk. Aelius frowned, and wandered on.
A few hundred years more, and he heard of a young woman named Magdalena, a teacher. He found her in a little schoolhouse at the edge of a small town in Germany. He could hear singing coming from inside. As he looked in the window, he saw Magdalena, leading little girls as they chanted lessons out of a book. Afterwards, as the children left, Aelius asked the teacher what she had been doing—hadn’t these girls better save their breath to chat up the boys, and find husbands, he smirked. Husbands and wives will always find each other, the teacher smiled, but these girls are learned to read, so that they can learn about Jesus, and tell his message to others. They can lift their prayers to God in song, and know that God hears them, just as much as anyone else. Aelius scratched his head. He asked if he could take a book with him, and went on his way.
For centuries more he traveled, through the world and through the words, as he puzzled his way along. He crossed an ocean, and found new horizons to explore. In a city on a river, one hot summer, a terrible fever raged, striking down so many, old and young. Untouched as ever, Aelius walked into a hospital, where a few nuns tended the afflicted. Why don’t you leave, he demanded of the Mother Superior, whose name was Constance—you can do no more for these, they are dying—save yourselves! Constance’s eyes shined at him as she spoke—we were told to care for all, each and every one, as if they were Jesus. If all I can do is prepare them for burial, with love, then that is what I will do, and I myself will die crying Alleluia, Hosanna. Aelius said nothing, but he noticed that the room was dirty. He picked up a cloth and bucket and kneeling down, began to mop the floor as the women worked.
Aelius Antoninus did not have much farther to travel. As the year drew to its close, he found himself wandering again at night, in a desert. Three riders approached, just as they had, almost two thousand years before. This time, Aelius laughed with joy, to see them at last. Let me go with you, he said, that I may kneel at the coming of the new king! What changed your mind? They asked. I have seen how the gifts you brought were signs and tokens of the ones he would give—the freedom from gold’s tyranny, the courage for all to pray and be heard, the love that lays down one’s life for one’s friends. I would offer my poor gifts, too, and see what treasures he can make of them.
So Aelius wandered no more, but entered into the story, in which, to tell the truth, he had a place all along. So do I, and so do you. I wonder what it will be?