This will be a sign for you: you will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. (Luke 2.12)
Advent’s journey of long, still, and sober nights is winding down. Three days from now, Earth will tilt on its axis—a prized event for those who’ve endured six months of waning daylight. North, south, east, and west, Advent pilgrims have Bethlehem in full view. We who are given to flights of imagination envision millions of faithful believers converging on a country road that snakes across broad meadowlands outlying the hilltop village known as “the City of David.” And right about here is when I (and I suspect many like me) really start to miss the King James Version’s Nativity accounts. Up to this point, newer, more accurate translations of the Advent texts are a godsend. Once we get to the birth, however, modern versions can’t compete with the KJV’s poetry.
Compare the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the angel’s instruction to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2.12) Now listen to the KJV: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” I would guess the KJV’s use of “swaddling” is the first time most of us encounter the term. Since it sounds comfy, we assume “swaddling clothes” are akin to a receiving blanket—a downy wrap for a newborn. And we may be shocked to learn they're not. The NSRV’s tone-deaf “bands of cloth” is spot-on. Swaddling clothes are fabric strips that bind ancient newborns’ movement. After birth, they’re bathed and salted (to preserve their soft skin), and tightly wrapped below the neck to protect them from insect bites and straighten their limbs. Swaddling is anything but comfy. It’s hot, confining, and makes for very unhappy babies. The Baby Jesus we imagine nestled in a warm blanket is not Whom the shepherds find. They see a cranky, immobilized Infant Who looks more like a mummy than a Holy Child. So much for poetry.
A World That Restrains Him
Swaddling continued into the 1600s, well after artists began depicting the Nativity in paint and stone. Even among works dated before it went out of vogue, however, very few portray a tightly wrapped Child. (Those that do present Jesus as blissfully content to be bound neck-to-foot.) Personally, I can’t recall swaddling in any Sunday school and storybook illustrations from my childhood. Nor do I remember a Bible teacher or minister explaining it—ever. Without asking, the reason seems apparent. A corseted, bawling, miserable Baby Jesus is counterintuitive to all He represents. This is the Child Who brings freedom, peace, and joy to the world. Why would an artist, teacher, or minister present Him any other way but free, peaceful, and happy?
Yet peeking into a flea-infested manger to spy a trussed-up, squirmy, fretful Christ Child somehow appeals to me. I’m strangely moved by thought of Jesus coming into a world that instantly restrains Him and causes His parents great anguish. What frustration Mary must feel, as she fights every urge to loose Him and hold the flesh of her flesh to her bosom. How Joseph must ache to take Jesus’s tiny hand in his calloused palm and feel the touch of God. The agony they must experience, as the Baby wails to break free. And in that moment, they epitomize a profound conflict that burdens all of us who carve a birthplace for Christ in our hearts.
Born to Be Free
Conventional wisdom says restricting Jesus’s movement in our lives is best for Him. If we truly love Him, we won’t expose Him to our diseases. His reach must be severely limited and His touch denied. For His health and safety, His cries to be loosed must be ignored. A freely moving Christ is an irresponsibly handled One, we’re told. This Sacred Child’s misfortune is being born into a world of clear and present dangers none so pure as He could possibly withstand. Sharp bites of infectious hatred and violence that barely faze us will destroy Him. Pressures that tie us in knots will bend and break His tender limbs. Swaddle Jesus, we’re told. Wrap Him up tightly to shield Him from evils and ugliness that plague our world. Be afraid for Him—and fear what people will think if you give Him free access in your life. Imagine their discomfort when they see the Christ born inside you held close to your bosom. Think of their alarm when touching the hand of God matters more to you than bowing to custom. Worry more about what will be said of you behind your back than the Christ Child’s cries to be loosed in your heart.
Perhaps painters and sculptors, teachers and ministers don’t present a swaddled Jesus because they’ve freed the Christ born in them. Perhaps they’ve come to grips with a truth that conventional wisdom doesn’t account for: the tiny Babe is indestructible. He’s the Eternal Word made flesh, God Incarnate, the Creator disguised as creation. We need neither be afraid for Him nor fear what people will think and say. The Baby born to free us is born to be free in us. Come to the stable. Look in the manger. But don’t stop there. Lift the Child from the hay. Unravel His restraints and let them fall away. Permit Him to move as He pleases. Permit yourself to hold Him close. Feel God’s touch. Discover the freedom from fear, peace of mind, and joy of living that Christ brings. Set Jesus free.
Most Holy and Indestructible Child, we confess bowing to conventional wisdom that urges us to restrict Your movement. We repent of our foolish fears and conformity. Be free in us. Move as You will. And free us to let You remain free, to hold You close and feel Your touch always. Amen.
See the Newborn trussed in swaddling and set Him free. (Georges de la Tour: Adoration of the Shepherds; c. 1644)
Postscript: “Move in Me”
Take this little song with you to the manger. Sing it quietly, as a prayer to the Infant. Set Him free, and find the freedom, peace, and joy He brings.