I couldn’t stop looking at my boys last night, three fine young men suited up in jackets and ties (of their own choice!) for the Christmas concert. We’ve come a long way from the days when I struggled to get them into anything nicer than T-shirts. And it’s all about the clothes, isn’t it, when it comes to church at Christmas?
Well, maybe not all about the clothes. But most of us do “don our gay apparel” when it comes to the holidays, and a fair amount of time is spent finding just the right dress or shoes for the occasion.
Details count, and if you read Luke’s gospel looking for details, you might notice that it’s all about the clothes when it comes to his portrayal of Jesus. Swaddling clothes, that is, and burial cloths. Not even John the Baptist gets his clothes described in Luke (while Matthew notes his “garment of camel’s hair” and “leather girdle”), so these stand out: The savior enters the world and is wrapped in linen cloths. Leaving the world, there is only “the linen cloths by themselves” left in the grave to show he’d been there.
I want to know more about these swaddling clothes (or cloths, I should say, which is more accurate). I can see the reason to mention to grave cloths; they’re evidence of the resurrection. But swaddling cloths? Details count, as I said before, and Luke mentions them twice–doubling for emphasis. Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger” (Lk 2:7). Then the angels announce “a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Lk 2:11-12)
Women since ancient times and in many cultures have wrapped their newborn infants. The umbilical cord is cut and tied, then the baby is washed with water and rubbed with finely pulverized salt. Then he is laid on a cloth, legs straight and arms at his sides. A long strip of cloth, 4 or 5 inches wide by 5 or 6 yards long, is wrapped in overlapping bands from head to toe. Room is left for the face, of course, and at the business end of things. The snug cloths prevent startling, help limbs to grow straight, and are said to aid in sleeping.
What’s the big deal about a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths?
After all, if it was a common practice, why mention it? That would hardly help the shepherds pick this baby out from others. If that was the purpose it might make more sense to say what Mary wore for the occasion, or Joseph.
And if that was the reason – why call it a sign?
The answer is in the Old Testament.
Swaddling is mentioned three times in the Old Testament, and two have bearing on our sign. They can be found in Ezekiel 16 and Wisdom 7.
In the dark days of the Babylonian exile, God gave Ezekiel a picture of Jerusalem to explain her exile: she was like a pagan baby girl, unwanted and abandoned in an open field to die:
“On the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you; but you were cast out …” (vss. 4-5).
Ezekiel goes on to explain how God rescued her. He tenderly washed and cared for her, decked her out in gold and jewels, brought her up to be his bride. Yet she spent her jewels and gifts on other loves, on other gods, made herself a harlot. Thus the exile. “Yet I will remember my covenant with you,” said the Lord, “and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant … and you shall know that I am the Lord” (vss. 60, 62).
I can’t help seeing in Jesus, the babe in swaddling cloths, a sign that the New Israel has been born! God’s everlasting covenant, promised centuries before, will be established through this swaddled child.
While Ezekiel just hints at what might be behind Luke’s mention of swaddling cloths, the passage in Wisdom is more to the point. Here Solomon – the first “Son of David” – speaks of his own birth:
“Mortal, like all men … in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh … and my first sound was a cry, like that of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure.”
The angels bring great news: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ (“Messiah”) the Lord. And this will be a sign for you…”
Swaddling cloths are a sign of the promised king, made clear through the words of Solomon — the royal son of David who sought wisdom above riches and whose swaddling clothes were a sign not merely of humility, but of his humanity. “No king has had a different beginning of existence,” Solomon wrote. Not the first son of David, and not this last.