When our daughter was born in the early 80s, ‘swaddling’ was making a comeback. The midwife wrapped Emma gently yet snuggly in the cotton receiving blanket in a fashion that would help her feel warm, secure and content; I was encouraged to do likewise each time she needed changing.
Help! I was in the maternity wing for 7 days and I didn’t manage this technique once. Emma looked like she was wearing an off the shoulder cape on her way to a prom ball!
However, it wasn’t until I lived in the Middle East that I understood what real swaddling is like, and what Mary did to Jesus at his birth. The traditional custom then, a practice still common in many parts of the world, is the tight binding with strips of cloth to keep the baby’s arms and legs still and perfectly straight. The understanding was that this ensures the limbs will not become crooked.
(Detail from a painting by the French artist Georges de la Tour 1644.)
Swaddling is mentioned in the book of Ezekiel. The prophet describes the condition of Israel when God found her. It was one of neglect and abandonment. God rescued her for himself and cared for her like a loving parent.
‘……on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred …..’ ( Ezekiel 16:1-5).
Mary and Joseph did all these things for Jesus. He was loved and cared for in the traditional manner. He was swaddled.
Luke’s nativity narrative tells us twice that he was wrapped in swaddling cloths. In fact it was part of the threefold sign for the shepherds. They would find a baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.
A baby! The idea that Almighty God would give us his Son to be born in human flesh, so small and helpless, is the beautiful mystery of the incarnation that fuels our worship and fills us with wonder at Christmas time. How humbly he came.
Lying in a manger! To be found lying in an animals’ feeding trough is a shocking part of the sign. Indeed, Christ’s humble birth to a simple teenage girl from the small backwater town of Nazareth would lead to a life of having ‘nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58) and the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion outside the city walls (Hebrews13:12).
Yes, the incarnation points to the real reason for the season. He took on our flesh that he might live and die in our place. He came to save us from our sins and to usher in his kingdom – the kingdom of God that will one day fully come and regenerate the whole of creation. He calls us to feed on him, to believe on him, the bread of life (John 6:53-55). How significant to find him in a manger.
Swaddled! There was nothing unusual in this. Any baby born that night in Bethlehem would have been swaddled. But, perhaps, because of these months of feeling our COVID restrictions and confinement, I’m drawn to the One who was swaddled for us.
The One who at creation ‘measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span’ (Isaiah 40:12) was bound helpless in bands of cloth – his hands held tightly by his sides. One day these hands would be bound again, then stretched out and nailed to a cross. Perhaps these swaddling cloths prefigure the grave clothes that wrapped his body as he was buried in the tomb.
This Christmas we celebrate Jesus who was swaddled for us. He was bound that we might be free. Death could not hold him, and no matter our present restrictions, let’s rejoice in the freedom we have found in Christ.