Swaddling clothes or bands of cloth were in fact part of the age old practice of swaddling, binding the infant in cloth, it prevented some freedom of movement but it was designed to keep the child warm and to encourage the formation of straight bones, bones without deformity. That is how those who came to visit the baby on the night of his birth would find the child, this child lying in a manger and a manger is basically a feeding trough for farm animals it would be full of hay or straw and there amongst it all lay the Christ Child. Those who visited him we are told fell down and worshipped him.
In the words of William Ellery Channing: “Jesus by his birth was truly a human being; and in this we should rejoice. He was flesh of our flesh. He had our wants and desires, our hunger and thirst, our sensations of pleasure and pain, our natural passions.” And yet the few but significant visitors to the scene of the nativity in Bethlehem that night fell down and worshipped him. Why should this be? A poor couple in a cold stable, really only fit for animals, are there and the woman has just given birth to her first-born child. It’s a far cry from some salubrious hotel or even an NHS hospital and yet something, not merely something significant, but something earth shattering is depicted here amongst the poverty and the vulnerability of it all.
The truth is that it’s not in spite of the explicit poverty of the nativity scene that this event is profoundly important but rather because of it. Because if we look at the preceding text from Luke we can read: “And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. This then is the signifier. This child, the prophet, priest and king comes in poverty, he is lying in a manger, he does not “come to us in a pre-existent glory he does not descend from Heaven in the array of an archangel as Channing would have it but rather the significance of it all, he says is:
"It is a matter of joy that our Deliverer was clothed with humanity. For this has brought him near us, and established a bond of sympathy which is inestimably precious."
To the worldly and the cynical the power and the glory does not reside with the poor and the humble but amongst the trappings of wealth, fame, palatial residences and martial power. A baby in a cowshed does not fit the criterion for kingship and so the world moves on. And so at this special time of the year we are left with that that image, that memory of mother and child that image that speaks to us of our own humanity. It’s an image that leads us on past the arrogance and indifference of the world into the power of divine love where we may follow our true destiny exemplified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
“Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”