The Sign of Swaddling Clothes
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn…. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:7, 12, ESV)
I have always read Luke 2:7 without a passing thought about the words “wrapped in swaddling cloths.” Mary was a peasant girl and a new mom in a strange place and inconvenient circumstances, so she had to “make do.” Using what she had on hand, a few pieces of cloth or clean rags, she wrapped her little one against the chill of the night and the cave. It always seemed pretty straightforward to me.
A recent article in Christianity Today, however, tweaked my curiosity about the word “swaddling.” After consulting my Greek Testament, I discovered there was only one Greek word to translate four English words: “wrapped in swaddling cloths.”
Here is a literal translation: “Mary swaddled him and laid him in a manger.” Then to shepherds the angel announced, “And this is a sign for you, you will find an infant having been swaddled and lying in a manger.”
So what in the world is swaddling? The dictionary tells us that “swaddle or swath is to firmly wrap or bind something with cloth.”
As it turns out, many cultures for thousands of years have practiced swathing or swaddling babies. It was a common practice in Asia, Europe and America until the 17th Century. Secured in tightly wrapped cloth (or the Native American pappoose in a cradle board), it was impossible for the baby to move its arms or legs, thus encouraging longer sleep cycles and providing warmth. It was also assumed the baby felt more secure by limiting the natural reflex of waving arms and legs. Some cultures swaddled their little ones in the belief that it would encourage arms and legs to grow straight and strong.
We now understand that babies need to move their limbs to build muscle strength and coordination. Tightly wrapping a newborn infant, restricting any movement at all, might even limit the baby’s ability to breathe properly.
Look at it this way, the fetus has been confined in the mother’s womb. Then it travels through the birth canal, clearly not the most comfortable trip one can make. As the Biblical Illustrator describes it, “the first gift a baby receives is fetters.” William Cadogan was one of the first physicians to call for the abolition of swaddling in 1748.
People still wrap their little ones, of course, especially as a means of settling or soothing irritable infants. Modern swaddling, however, is of the kinder, gentler variety—and much less confining.
I suspect that Mary, being the product of her culture, practiced the ancient version of swaddling by wrapping strips of cloth firmly around Jesus, limiting movement of His arms and legs. After all, it was the “proper” thing to do if you were a good mother. And the night may have been raw and cold.
Mary demonstrated that Jesus was loved and welcomed into the family by tenderly swathing Him. Contrast her tenderness with God’s metaphoric description of the birth of the city of Jerusalem by her pagan parents, the Amorites.
“And as for your birth, 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, on the day that you were born.” (Ezekiel 16:4-5, esv)
Heartless! Can there be a more graphic illustration of parental callousness and neglect? Nobody cut the umbilical cord. Nobody cleansed the writhing, bloody baby. In that culture it meant washing and using salt as an antiseptic. Nobody even wrapped this little girl or nurtured her. She was simply discarded and left to die.
I discovered that in the Greek Old Testament, The Septuagint, Ezekiel 16 used the very same Greek verb “swaddle” as Luke the physician used in Luke 2:7. The contrast, however, could not be starker. Our hearts cry out in righteous anger on behalf of that little baby girl on the garbage pile.
Mary and Joseph’s loving care for the infant Jesus rises up to us through the millennia like the fragrance after a rainstorm or beautiful flower nodding in a gentle breeze.
Just for a moment, however, let’s stop to consider what it must have been like for the Creator God to be swaddled. Think of it! The One who spoke this seeming endless universe into existence was “fettered” so tightly he couldn’t move His arms! Beyond that, of course, we recall that our Lord’s first swaddling was being fettered to the human body of a helpless infant.
During His life and ministry Jesus remained swaddled in a body of flesh like ours.
After His death on the cross, our Lord’s body was bound with strips of fine linen, not the peasant cloth at His birth. He was swathed in grave-clothes, death itself, and a dark tomb.
Thank God the story doesn’t end that way. In Luke 20:7, the gospel describes how the death mask or face cloth was folded up neatly and set aside. The grave-clothes that swaddled the corpse were now empty. He was no longer swaddled…and will never be restricted or bound again in all eternity!
In the book of Revelation Jesus appears again as a fierce warrior king “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” and followed by the armies of heaven dressed in robes, white and pure. The Son of God will return to earth wrapped in a robe with a name on His thigh, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
So this Christmas, when you sing Silent Night or Away in the Manger, reflect on what it meant for Jesus to be swaddled so tightly He couldn’t move—and may have even struggled to breathe.
Through His 33 years among us—from the cradle to the tomb—He submitted to restriction after restriction after restriction, and He did it for you and me.
He is restricted no longer. And one day, in His presence, we won’t be either. Imagine words like these from Handel’s Messiah resonating throughout heaven, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign forever and ever!”