Below is the story I shared during Christmas Day worship. Here’s how I stumbled upon it. December 25, 1977 was a Sunday. On our third Christmas together, Lynda and I led worship at the church we co-pastored in Switzerland County Indiana. Then we climbed into the car for a 16 hour drive to her home in Texas. When we stopped for gas in Nashville we bought a newspaper, which had reprinted this story. The author also wrote The Mouse that Roared and other children’s books.
…for they were old men and they were wise men…
By Leonard Wibberley
A long time ago, I used to visit a sanitarium regularly. My mother was a patient there and she had very little mind, if that is the right way to put it, and knew nothing of anything but God and roses. I kept her plentifully supplied with roses and she had been plentifully supplied with God all her life and so she was happy. Sometimes she would sing Irish songs to me in a thin little child’s voice and I’d have to get up and go out of the room, for there’s nothing sillier in all the busy world than a grown man crying.
Well, visiting my mother, I got to visiting other old people around the place and that’s how I got to meet the three men I want to tell you about.
They were very old. all three of them, and they shared the same room. One was very fat but in a watery kind of way. It looked as though it was liquid rather than flesh that made his skin droop around him in bulges.
Another was thin and sallow and had eyes of so pale and blue that at first I though he was blind until I found him reading a newspaper without glasses. He said he’d been a professional baseball player— a catcher with the Chicago Black Socks if that’s the team that got into all that trouble years and years ago. The fat one said he’d been an actor and he would recite Shakespeare, being particularly fond of Wolsey’s parting speech to Cromwell.
“…Oh Cromwell, Cromwell
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my King, life would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.”
He gave a fine turn to the whole thing. The third was a skinny little black man who said he had once been Owner of a bank in Nashville, I think, and the thought itself may be libelous, that he had owned the bank for half an hour during a holdup.
Anyway, these three roomed together and were the best of companions and told me many a story.
They had no other visitors except a young girl who always came to see them the first week of January with her baby. I thought maybe she was a granddaughter or great-granddaughter of one of them, but, regarding the matter as somewhat delicate, I did not inquire.
It was one of the nurses who told me the story. It appeared that one time, the one who could read without glasses had been looking over the paper and discovered an item saying the first child to arrive on Christmas Day at the local hospital had been born a few seconds after midnight and was a boy weighing seven pounds eight ounces and everything was fine. The father’s name was not given.
“You know what?” he said. “We ought to go visit her.”
“Hell, we don’t even know her, they’d never let us in,” said another.
“You underestimate my talents,” said the one who recited Shakespeare. “I have played before the crowned heads of Europe. A busy nurse in a maternity ward would be a pushover.”
So they decided on the adventure, but first, they had some preparations to make.
They had to get their best suits cleaned and ironed and they had to persuade the sanitarium people that they wanted to go for an evening stroll together, and they had to think of some birthday presents to buy for the baby.
But they managed everything, and the Shakespearean actor persuaded the nurse that he was the child’s great-grandfather, and the thin man with the blue eyes was the child’s great granduncle. There was some trouble over the black man who couldn’t possibly be a blood relative, but it was explained that he was a close friend of the family and a prominent citizen of Tennessee having once owned a bank in Nashville.
“Well, you can’t go in anyway,” said the nurse driven to her last defense. “She’s nursing the baby right now.”
“Madam,” said the actor. “Will you look at me think how long it is since I have seen a mother nursing her child — and how much time there yet remains to me? That did it. She let them in but stood by the door to watch what happened.
They gathered around the end of the bed and the mother looked up at them.
“We’ve come a long way,” said the actor. ‘”Two thousand years. My name is Melchior. I bring gold for the child.” He took the ring off his finger and put it on hers. She wasn’t wearing one. “My wife is 50 years dead,’ he said. “You should have this.”
“My name is Balthazar,” said the black man. “I bring frankincense,” and he put a scented candle beside the bed.
“My name is Kaspar,” said the third. “I bring myrrh.” And he produced a small bottle of perfume he picked up at Woolworth’s.
“My name is Mary,” said the mother simply. “My son comes from God.”
The Magi, Henry Siddons Mowbray, 1915
They nodded for they were old men and they were wise men, and they knew that that was true of every child.
Well, that’s the story as I got it from the nurse at the sanitarium, and there’s only one detail she left out. There was a very bright light in the sky over the hospital when the three of them arrived, but it may have been a police helicopter looking for someone.
I don’t know.
The older I get, the less I know for sure.
But if you happen to be a nurse on duty in a maternity ward at this time of the year and three old men turn up asking to visit a fatherless child, let them in. God knows there’s enough sorrow in the world and we could all do with a little comfort.
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