After the birth of Jesus, the angel of the Lord communicated that message to the shepherds in Bethlehem. The sign the angel gave them to identify the infant was, “you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:5). Wrapping the newborn babies with the swaddling clothes was a traditional practice.
Swaddling clothes are narrow strips of cloth and their usage showed the care of the mother for the child. In contrast to this, God told Ezekiel the pathetic situation of Israel before God cared for her. “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut; you were not washed with water or anointed; you were not rubbed with salt or wrapped in swaddling clothes. No eye looked on you with pity or compassion to do any of these things for you. Rather, on the day you were born you were left out in the field, rejected” (Ezek 16:4-5). This gives us an idea of how a family took care of a newborn baby. Mary took good care of Jesus in the traditional method when he was born.
When, Solomon, the biological son of David was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes (Wis 7:4). Jesus, the promised Son of David also got the same care. Mary might have brought the swaddling clothes with her because she was expecting the birth of the baby when she left Nazareth. She had to do this herself because there was none to help her other than Joseph.
THE PURPOSE OF SWADDLING CLOTHES
Wrapping the newborn babies with swaddling clothes is helpful:
1. Swaddling helps the baby feel comfortable after its transition from the womb of the mother.
2. It helps the baby keep clean, warm, and free from any self or external injury.
3. Wrapping in swaddling clothes help the babies sleep better.
4. It helps the baby’s limbs grow straight.
SACRIFICIAL LAMBS AND SWADDLING CLOTHES
The priests in the Temple needed plenty of unblemished lambs of sacrifice. Specially trained shepherds titled, “Levitical Shepherds” took utmost care of the sacrificial lambs from their birth, so they are acceptable for sacrifice. When the time approaches for the pregnant ewe to give birth, the shepherds move her to a special clean cave used as a birthplace for sacrificial lambs. They will wrap the newborn lamb in swaddling clothes immediately after birth as people do for a newborn baby. This was to keep the lamb unblemished and protect it from harm.
When the angel of the Lord gave the sign of a baby born in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, they understood him similar to a sacrificial lamb. Mary might have given birth to Jesus in the special cave where the sacrificial lambs were born because that was available for their refuge. It was also symbolically the apt place for the Messiah to be born. So, the shepherds knew where to look for the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.
SWADDLING CLOTHES AND BURIAL CLOTHES
There are Biblical scholars who associate the swaddling clothes used for Jesus at the time of his birth and the burial clothes wrapped around his body at the time of his burial. When Jesus rose Lazarus from the tomb, “The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth” (Jn 11:44). When Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried Jesus, “They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom” (Jn 19:40).
Using the swaddling clothes is a sign of parental care and protection. God cared for Israel and protected it from enemies. Likewise, “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). Let us be under the guidance and protection of Jesus while taking care of the faith of our coming generations.