This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12)
I didn’t know what swaddling was till I became a father. For thirty years, I heard the Christmas story year after year, assuming that “swaddling cloths” conveyed the poverty into which Jesus was born. I thought it must mean something like “threadbare.” Born and raised in the 1980s, the Mathis kids were tummy sleepers. As the oldest of four, I had observed the care of my younger sisters in their infancy. My mother followed the counsel of the day and slept us on our bellies. No swaddling in our house.
“God himself embodies the same frailty and helplessness every single one of us did at birth.”
But apparently the conventional wisdom changed in the 1990s, back to what it’s been in most times and places throughout history. The “new” recommended sleeping position for infants, to avoid SIDS, was “supine,” on the back — and with it swaddling made a ferocious comeback. In the last decade, my wife and I swaddled our twin boys for their first months of life, and then our two daughters after them. In the process, that old word swaddling I had heard so many times in the story of Jesus’s birth began to make more sense — and take on serious meaning.
Lying in a Manger
Luke is the only Gospel that mentions this specific detail, and he does so twice in just a few verses. Mary, we know, “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). Luke recounts it because the shepherds report to Mary and Joseph these two details from the angel, to help them find the child: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
Other than “born this day in the city of David” (Luke 2:11) — that’s the “little town” of Bethlehem — this is all the shepherds had to go on: city, swaddling cloths, manger. There’s no mention of a star guiding the shepherds’ way to baby Jesus, as it would for the magi. The main coordinate was Bethlehem, which wasn’t a large city but a nearby town, modestly sized. It wouldn’t take long to ask around if anyone knew of a newborn.
The confirming detail would be that the baby would be lying in a manger. That’s distinctive. Luke then reports this as the key detail confirming the shepherds’ search had ended: they “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16).
Wrapped in Swaddling Cloths
Why, then, mention the swaddling cloths? Unlike the manger, it was not unique or distinctive at all. So far as we know, every newborn would have been swaddled.
First-century Jewish care for newborns was in step with the typical practice across the ages and around the world. Swaddling was “the normal practice of Jewish mothers,” according to late Luke commentator Grant Osborne. “These are lengthy strips of cloth bound around the child to keep the limbs straight and still. The purpose was to keep them secure and provide stability” (67). “The wrapping of his fragile limbs in cloths,” writes Darrell Bock “was common in the ancient world to keep them protected and in place” (83), a practice, according to James Edwards, “that continues even today in villages in Syria and Palestine.” And America.
Swaddling is not only “ancient” today, but it would have been “ancient” for Mary and Joseph as well. At least six centuries before Christ, it was common infant care, and thus a powerful prophetic image about the status of God’s people apart from his election of them:
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. (Ezekiel 16:4)
Ezekiel gives us this incidental glimpse into the ancient care of newborns: cut the cord, wash with water, rub with salt, and wrap in swaddling cloths. Unlike the picture of Israel in her helplessness, infants who were wanted, and cared for, were washed and swaddled.
The purpose of swaddling, as we’ve seen, was to provide protection and security and stability to a frail newborn. But the main significance of Luke’s reporting the detail is the commonness of swaddling. Jesus was like any other baby. Swaddling was standard infant care. And Jesus was, in this way, a standard, very typical newborn in the care of loving parents.
His swaddling cloths are not a mark of poverty (for that, look to the two turtledoves of Luke 2:24, according to the provision of Leviticus 12:8 for the poor). Rather, they are a mark of the commonness of his newborn humanity. God himself embodies the same frailty and helplessness every single one of us did at birth.
“He is this human, fully human — from ovum to zygote to embryo to fetus to newborn.”
At long last, the long-awaited Christ has come, and he has come like this. This dependent on his human mother and human father. This weak and vulnerable. This insecure and frail in the moments after leaving his mother’s womb. Fullness of God in helpless babe, he cannot even control his limbs enough to keep himself asleep. He is this in need of warmth or protection. He is this in need to be settled and soothed. He is this human, fully human, beginning the journey of human life like the rest of us — from ovum to zygote to embryo to fetus to newborn — with all its attendant frailty and fragility. He is this normal: wrapped in swaddling cloths.
His Humbling Has Only Begun
And yet he is not normal. This newborn is lying in a manger. While the swaddling accents his commonness, the manger signals the extraordinary. This Christ child is unexpectedly typical, and surprisingly distinct. He is normal, and yet not. He is fully human, and yet he is more than other mere humans. Set apart before the ages began, here he lies — in a feeding trough.
“The arrival of the incarnated Son of God,” comments Bock, “is a study in contrast between how God did it and how we might have done it” (86). Indeed it is. From the virgin conception, to the parents of lowly estate, to the little town, the undignified visitors, and now the manger, God does it like no human would have planned.
This child was born to die. He “emptied himself” — not by subtraction of divinity, but by addition of humanity — “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself . . .” (Philippians 2:7–8). Already, lying in a manger, of all places, he is on the long, three-decades path to the cross. He abhors not the virgin’s womb, nor our humanity, nor the place where animals feed, nor the path of suffering “. . . by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
One Last Swaddle
Swaddled in the manger will not be the last time this human body will be bound. When they arrest him one day, he will be bound (John 18:12), and they will carry him bound from one unjust trial to the next (Matthew 27:2; Mark 15:1; John 18:24). Even more helpless than a swaddled baby will be the man Christ Jesus with iron chains around his hands and feet, and then greater still: the binding, with nails, of his hands and feet to the cross.
“The one who was once swaddled is now the King of the universe.”
The swaddling at his birth will not be the last time in the Gospels that we read about the incarnate Son being wrapped in cloth. After his death, he will be wrapped again, this time in linen. Among the Synoptics, only Luke (who mentions his swaddling) draws attention to the grave cloths: “Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened” (Luke 24:12).
The infant in the manger would not stayed swaddled. And his crucified body would not stay dead. He entered into the swaddled, bounded, frail, and fragile reality of our human existence, and carried us with him, even in our finitude, into the boundlessness of eternity and the coming new world. He is not dead; he is risen. The one who was swaddled, like us, is now the human King of the universe.
And yet it all began in Bethlehem, in such mildness and meekness. The one who would come from heaven to save us must be truly us. The one who would pioneer our way into the very presence of God must be like us in every respect. And so we marvel at both the normalcy of his swaddled humanity, and the whisper of that unusual manger, in this singular child of Christmas.