It is Matthew (2:1-18) who gives us the story of the wise men from the East who come to Bethlehem to see the newborn Jesus. Legend has enriched the simple story which says there came ‘wise men from the East'. Some legends had their numbers to be as high as twelve, but most of us think of them as being three in number because of the three separate gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Later, legends made them kings and gave them names: Gasper, Melchior, and Balthazar. Henry Van Dyke contributed a fourth wise man, Artaban, in his lovely story, The Other Wise Man. If you have never read it, you have missed a real treat.
Several years ago someone gave me a copy of a lovely ‘wise men related' legend I had never heard. It is in the form of a poem by Phyllis McGinley entitled: The Legend of Befana. I now give it to you, without commentary.
THE LEGEND OF BEFANA
Befana, the housewife,scrubbing her pane,
Saw three old sages ride down the lane,
Saw three gray travelers pass her door-
Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior.
"Where journey you sirs?" she asked of them.
And Gaspar answered, "To Bethlehem,
For we have news of a marvelous thing.
Born in a stable is Christ the King".
"Give Him my welcome!" Balthazar smiled,
"Come with us, mistress, to greet the Child".
"Oh, happily, happily would I fare
Were my dusting through and I'd polished the stair".
Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn.
"Then send but a gift to the small Newborn".
"Oh, gladly, gladly I'd send Him one
Were my cupboards clean and my weaving done.
I'd give Him a robe to warm His sleep,
But first I must mend the fire, and sweep.
As soon as ever I've baked my bread,
I'll fetch him a pillow for His head,
And a coverlet, too", Befana said.
"When the rooms are aired and linen dry,
I'll look to the Babe". But the Three rode by.
She worked for a day and night and a day,
Then, gifts in her hands, took up her way.
But she never could find where the Christ Child lay.
And still she wanders at Christmastide,
Houseless, whose house was all her pride,
Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late;
Wanders, and knocks at every gate,
Crying, "Good people, the bells begin!
Put off your toiling and let love in".
--Thomas Lane Butts