Wrapped in swaddling clothes: What does that mean?

A recent blog post focused on some of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ with the heralding of the “good news” to the shepherds. The proclamation of the glory of God revealed specific details that would confirm the birth of the Savior of the world. As we read the passage from the Gospel of Luke, we find a more complete unfolding of the sequence of events:

Luke 2:11-14 (Amplified Bible):

For this day in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (the Messiah). And this will be a sign for you [by which you will recognize Him]: you will find a Baby wrapped in [swaddling] cloths and lying in a manger.” Then suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host (angelic army) praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest [heaven], And on earth peace among men with whom He is well-pleased.”

This passage contains a reference to an ancient custom associated with birth, that is, Mary wrapped the child in “swaddling cloths” or as the King James Version renders “swaddling clothes” or “swaddling strips” in the New Living Translation. We also find a reference in Luke 2:6-7:

6 While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to give birth, 7 and she gave birth to her Son, her firstborn; and she wrapped Him in [swaddling] cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no [private] room for them in the inn.

These passages refer to the practice whereby a child, particularly a child of royal lineage, was to be salted and swaddled. Shortly after birth, the child would be washed with water into which a pinch of salt had been added, symbolizing a covenant of salt, whereby the words spoken by the child would be words of truth, always seasoned with salt. The child would then be wrapped in swaddling bands or swaddling clothes, strips of fine linen to represent that the child would grow up to walk straight and tall.

KC Pillai, a converted Hindu who embraced Christianity, wrote extensively on Eastern customs and manners, known as Orientalisms, as revealed in the Bible. He point outs the distinctive features of the custom of swaddling and notes that when Israel strayed from the precepts of God and walked in idolatry, indicating how far they had strayed from the precepts of Jehovah:

Ezekiel 16:1-4 (NKJV):

Again the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 2 “Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abominations, 3 and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: “Your birth and your nativity are from the land of Canaan; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths.

Swaddling continued to be practiced beyond Biblical times, as a blog entry from needleprint.blogspot.com, commented on the elaborately embroidered bands made for young prince Federigo, Duke of Urbino, notable 15th Century figure from the Italian Renaissance, pictured here:

In addition, when the angels announced to the shepherds that the Savior had been born, they were given a sign that established the truth of their words:

And this will be a sign for you [by which you will recognize Him]: you will find a Baby wrapped in [swaddling] cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12).

The timing of the arrival of the shepherds had to be precise since the swaddling clothes remained on the child for only a few minutes. The shepherds could not arrive on the scene before the swaddling had begun, nor could they arrive after the custom had been completed. They had to be in the right place at precisely the right time. As we so clearly see, the account of the birth of Jesus Christ abounds with signs, wonders, and miracles, one of which involves his being “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.”

“He’s Here” sung by Eddie James offers a powerful, musical rendering of the account of the Savior who was “born of a virgin, wrapped in swaddling clothes. . .”

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