Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Meaning of Jesus' Swaddling Clothes

Given that's it's Christmas Eve, I thought I'd post something relating to the high holy day. Here I want to focus on a line most people know from Luke's account of Jesus' birth--the reference to his swaddling clothes.

The phrase come from the angel's announcement of Jesus' birth to the shepherds in the field. Let's look at in its full context:
"The angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). 
The significance of Jesus' swaddling clothes is often overlooked. But notice that the angel specifically explains that the fact that Jesus will be found in swaddling clothes will be part of the "sign" to them of his true identity as the Savior (Luke 2:12). Why is that?

To fully understand the importance of Jesus' swaddling clothes we need a little background.

In Luke's Gospel it is abundantly clear that Jesus is the "Messiah," which means the "anointed one", in Greek the christos--he is the Christ, the Son of David. Of course, the Davidic association with Jesus' role is obvious if you know the Old Testament. In recounting his last words, 2 Samuel 23 calls David, "the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Sam 23:1).

Jesus' role as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of David, is emphasized throughout the beginning of Luke's Gospel. At the annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her son
"... will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:32-33).
Later, Zechariah proclaims that the Lord "has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David" (Luke 1:69).

The Davidic themes continue in the story of Jesus' birth. He is born in Bethlehem, the city David had come from (cf. 1 Sam 16). In fact, Luke makes the Davidic association
with Bethlehem explicit. "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David" (Luke 2:4).

As mentioned above, the angels also allude to Jesus' role as the Son of David in their announcement to the shepherds: "
for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11).

So what's the significance of Jesus' appearance? Why is it a sign that the royal son of David is born in such a humble setting rather than into extravagance?

I would submit that it is because Solomon, the first son of David, was also known for such humility (until, of course, he turned away from the Lord). In Wisdom of Solomon 7, Solomon recounts how asked not for wealth or power, but only Wisdom. The son of David goes on to describe how, even though he is the greatest of all the kings of the earth, he was born like all others:
And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth, and my first sound was a cry, like that of all. 4 I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. 5 For no king has had a different beginning of existence; 6 there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure. 7 Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 8 I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. 9 Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. 10 I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light...
Jesus' humble birth is a sign that he really is the true Son of David. Like Solomon (before he fell away from the Lord), he is not about power, might or glory. Indeed, it would seem that along these lines the fact that he has even more humble birth might suggest that he is somehow even more worthy of glory. And, of course, he too is wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The Son of David, the Messiah is born. Glory to God!

Merry Christmas!


Sister Mary Agnes said...

That is really neat! I was thinking about the swaddling clothes this week and wondering what the significance was. Thank you for the insight.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. Does the LXX match up with Luke in that regard?


Anonymous said...

I think too much is being made of swaddling clothes. It was a common practice then and now and had nothing to do with being of humble origins. The point of mentioning swaddling clothes in regards to the passage about King David was to show that he began life as a baby, like all others, not that his beginning was humble since he had swaddling clothes. One tends to find what one looks for.

Jeanette said...

I remember as a child in church being taught by a woman who had lived for a number of years in Israel. Her comment on swaddling clothes to us was that swaddling clothes or cloths were used to wrap the body of a person who had died. If this is true, the significance and message would be then that this baby, this Messiah, was born to die, something that would have been completely unexpected of the Messiah... if swaddling clothes were not ordinary baby blankets.

spcc blog said...

While the groom built their new home, the bride also made preparations, including the embroidery of the swaddling bands with which the couple’s hands would be wrapped under the wedding canopy. Later these bands would also be used to secure blankets or swaddling clothes around the couple’s infant children. The symbols on the bands often indicated family history.11 Mary was from the tribe of Judah, so she may have used symbols common to that lineage such as a lion, a lamb, or a tree of life. As a descendant of David, she was also entitled to use the royal colors of blue and white. The symbolic significance of swaddling bands was so important that the embroidery on each side of the swaddling bands had to match exactly, with “right” and “wrong” sides indistinguishable. This symbolized the complete harmony of inner and outward life.12

truthseeker57 said...

the high priest robes were cut and used to wrap the torah when it was retired and a new one used because they had been in the presence of GOD they could not be destroyed they were buried. the angels were talking to Jews who would understand what they meant Yeshua was the that which was holy to G-D

Unknown said...

I would agree "One tends to find what one looks for" but also that one misses what one is not open to seeing. Have you ever wondered why the priest(s) in the temple did not notice Jesus as Messiah and Simeon and Anna did? (Luke 2) Maybe it is because that is what they were looking for. It just so happens, they were right, and found it, while others only saw a boy born to commoners, nothing to write home about

Anonymous said...

I agree that the swaddling clothes are a significant part of the sign mentioned by the angel, but since swaddling clothes seem to have been common practice, then one should probably look for its significance in combination with "lying in a feeding trough", which seems much clearer to me as a sign, since no Jew would normally look for the newborn king in a feeding trough! The absolute clarity of the "swaddling clothes" part of the sign I find slightly elusive, even after all that the rest of you have said. What is clear to me is that it would absolutely have been a sign to the shepherds, and ultimately our realisation of that is what matters most.

bobslink said...

As we read the Nativity Story, (esp Luke 2: 7-20)
Ponder the questions? Why did the angels go to the shepherds first? Why are swaddling clothes twice mentioned, "And this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

I gave a talk a week ago, on the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, when I found the special significance of this verse LaST NIGHT, it brought special testimony of His birth as the Saviour,
The shepherds would take the firstborn of the flock for the sin sacrifice offering. To stop the newborn lamb from injuring itself so it would be without blemish they would wrap them in swaddling clothes and usually lay them in a manger until they were stronger ready to go to the mother. Thus the sign of the firstborn son wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger was of special signifigance to the shepherds, who would share this incredible sign with others who could understand it!
May He continue to have a significant place in everyone's heart especially on this day of celebration.
Humbly, in His eternal Love

Bob Lewis

Michael Barber said...


I've never heard that before. Which sources from antiquity tell us the shepherds did this?

Unknown said...

Thank you Spec Blog, Anonymous and Bob for the helpful information.

Your comments make clear the absolute necessity of us reading both Old and New Covenats, especially the Gospels, in their ancient Hebrew cultural context ...not a Western, especially English one.

It seems from my research that the latter tradition up to the 18th Century was allegedly to assist an infant to be calm and grow straight.

Blessings all!
Gary in Toronto

Anonymous said...

Luke esi mentions swaddling cloth not swaddling clothes. swaddling cloth, as I understand, was a very cheap cloth which was wrapped around the top portion of a reed, soaked in oil then lit. It would light the way as a torch. Jesus came to be the light of the world and came full of oil of the Holy Spirit. His light will always shine.

Anonymous said...

Swaddling clothes/cloth are only used until the baby is able to turn over by itself, which happens around three months old. So the shepherds were given a rough age of the baby Jesus.

Lamb's poet said...

I learned this summer that swaddling clothes were strips of cloth used to wrap the dead for burial. How often have we seen Lazarus portrayed coming from the tomb in strips of cloth? We were taught that the manger likely was in a cave where animals we kept and caves were also a place where burial cloth was kept. I'm hoping to get specific sources for this ASAP. But if this is so the irony should be apparent, Jesus was swaddled in the very thing He would later be buried in! This may explain also why when the entered the tomb they found the napkin folded but not the burial WRAPPINGS (plural).

John 20:6-8
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)
6 Then cometh Simon Peter, following him, and went into the sepulchre, and saw the linen cloths lying,
7 And the napkin that had been about his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place.
8 Then that other disciple also went in, who came first to the sepulchre: and he saw, and believed.

Lamb's poet said...

OOOPS !!! checking further I may have overstated a detail: Verse 7 does not necessarily imply disorderliness of the linen cloths. As I look at it now the stress is on the napkin and the linen clothes being APART. Nevertheless the wrappings or linen clothes are plural.

Charley Schmidt said...

In a Bible study years ago we were discussing the significance of the grave clothes and the napkin laying separately. Our teacher who was well verse in Bible literature told us that in Jewish tradition that when the family was having a meal that if they were finished eating they would place their napkin in their plate and if they weren't they would place their napkin to the side to indicate that they would be back. Therefore it would appear that Jesus was not finished and that he will return. Just as he said he will.

Patty b bayville said...

Swaddling clothes is the same material that was twisted and used for wicks in the oil lamps. Representing that Jesus is the light of the world!
Patty b

Anonymous said...

Micah 4:8 tells us of the announcement of the Messiah and that it will come to Migdal-Eder (Tower of the Flock). This is about 5 miles outside Bethlehem where shepherds would bind the newborn lambs used in the Temple sacrifice with strips of cloth (swaddling Cloths) and lie them in a manger so they would not get trampled, as they could not be blemished. I doubt this sign was lost on any of the shepherds who went to worship the Lord in Bethlehem.
In His Love,

Raquel Rivera Ford said...

Our priest once asked us about the significance of swaddling and I answered him maybe it has something to do with binding wounds? He said it is like the cloth that is used for wrapping the dead for burial. I would much like to think that the swaddling clothes were like the gauze we wrap other people's wounds with, (in essence a spiritual wound can be wrapped w/ the the gauze of God's grace.)

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem to be known in the Gentile Church, but in Jewish tradition swaddling clothes were made from the priest's garments that were no longer being used. They were saved for royalty. Since Mary went to visit Elizabeth, and Zachariah being a priest, it is very possible that they gave swaddling clothes to Mary for Jesus' birth, knowing that He would be of the royal line of David, and Messiah.

Bill said...

The place where Jesus was born was in the vicinity of where the lambs for the Temple sacrifice were raised. When the lambs were born they were wrapped in swaddling clothes to protect them so they would be without blemish. That model was there so the shepherds understand that the Messiah had been born.

Anonymous said...

Hello Bob, just came from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and our guide, a very passionate Palestinian Catholic who taught at a Catholic University in Bethlehem said the exact same thing about swaddling clothes and their significance to shepherds.

Michael McVey said...

The Scripture says "swaddling clotHs", not "swaddling clotHEs"(emphasis mine).