Swaddled and Shamed
Job once said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.”
This hasn’t changed. We still come into this world with nothing at all, and we can take nothing with us when we leave.
While we are living, of course, we put on a good front. We want to be seen as respectable and decent people, so we dress the part and think a lot about our image. But at birth and at death, it all falls away: this is who you really are!
So for Christ: He was born, and He came naked from his mother’s womb. In those first hours, and for so many months afterward, He was completely vulnerable. And so his mother “wrapped him in swaddling cloths” (Luke 2:7).
What’s a swaddling cloth? It’s a long strip of fabric used to wrap up a baby, nice and tight. Often it would be a square of cloth, with an extended strip coming off from one corner. The child was first placed on the square of cloth, and then the long strip was carefully wound about him.
In that time, keeping babies wrapped up like this was common. One reason was to keep the infant protected, so it couldn’t injure its skin and eyes with sharp fingernails. But there was also the notion that keeping the fragile limbs bound tight would strengthen them. It would also keep the limbs from being bent the wrong way accidentally.
In the Bible, swaddling is seen as an act of love. There is a passage in Ezekiel which describes a newborn baby without swaddling cloths, and in that passage it is a sign of poverty and neglect.
Today we still say that it is cute to see a baby wrapped up with care. It’s touching to see the diligence of Dad and Mum, changing a nappie, putting on the undershirt, buttoning up the pjs, then wrapping up the whole works in a soft blanket. Layer after layer—today, it still shows the care of faithful parents.
But doesn’t it also show how totally helpless the child is? There he is, wrapped in all that fabric, buttoned up and woven in, unable to get out or to move on his own.
For a baby, it’s cute, and it is also the reality of that stage of life. But for the Messiah, God the Son, it’s degrading. Think of it: this is the one who came to save us, and at birth He is bound up in swaddling cloths. He is under the total care of those earthly and sinful parents, parents who didn’t fully understand why He had come!
This little bundle in the manger is the One who came to destroy the kingdom of darkness. The promised Saviour, the mighty Lord, is wrapped in swaddling cloths, and He can’t even move his arms and his legs.
Philippians 2 speaks about Christ “emptying himself” in becoming a human. To be our Redeemer, Jesus had to give up his high and heavenly position as the Son of God. He had to accept all the humiliation of being a person like us. He came all the way down, to the lowest place—indeed, Christ would have to go even lower than this!
So when we see that baby in swaddling cloths, it is not just another detail from a nativity scene. No, it is God’s faithfulness put on remarkable display. God sends a human Saviour, just as He said He would.
And the Saviour won’t be kept from any of the weakness that is basic to our condition. He will be a weak and lowly human, but this burden will not crush him. Jesus won’t die from embarrassment. He won’t even die for his own sin. He will be righteous in all He does, from Day 1 onwards.
We see the importance of this later in Luke 2, in verse 12, where the angel speaks to the shepherds about the birth of Christ. You would expect the angel to point them to a stunning sign, something really great. But the shepherds are told to look for the King of the universe and the Saviour of sinners in this way: “This will be the sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger.” And at once, the multitude of angels erupted in worship, “Glory to God in the highest” (v. 14).
With this praise ringing in their ears, you imagine the shepherds going from there and asking one another, “Now what did he say the sign of the Christ would be? A blazing fire? A glittering man in armour, hovering ten feet above the ground?” No, the sign would be a baby in a manger, a baby wrapped tight in fabric. They would see nothing remotely extraordinary, not like Zechariah’s muteness at the temple, or the miraculous conceptions of Elizabeth and Mary. Nothing special, yet something amazing.
For this most vulnerable birth for the Saviour also says something about what God values. It says that for God, a person’s importance is not tied to outward things. Importance doesn’t come from having money or power or ability. But what matters is our role and obedience in the work of God. What matters is being faithful where you are, humbly serving with whatever God has given. It is remaining focused on this question: What does God call you to do?
In our time and culture, this is a challenge—the challenge to accept the lower place. Anyone of importance today has to promote himself, develop his brand, have his own YouTube channel. You need to keep yourself in the spotlight, and get attention any way you can. And whatever you do, don’t be seen as being weak!
But Christ makes his first public appearance in swaddling cloths. He is unable to greet anyone, unable to move. Sure, there was glory on that day: listen to those angels, see the star in the heavens, and watch the shepherds and wise men arrive to worship. But when it came down to it, Jesus was weak. He was poor. He was lowly.
And the one who was naked at birth was also naked at death, just like Job said. Think of how at the end of Jesus’ life, the soldiers pinned him to a cross and they stripped him of his garments: He was naked and helpless. Once again Jesus was totally vulnerable, just like He had been in Bethlehem. Once again his mother was there, but this time Mary could do nothing for her son but weep.
Hands that once wrapped up her little child in love were now powerless to help.
But Christ was willing to do this, even to do it all alone. For when everything fell away, this is who He was, and this is what He came to do. Jesus accepted this humiliation and misery, accepting it because this is what the Father wanted him to do. And Jesus did it for us because He loves us so much. By the curse of all his suffering, we are greatly blessed.
By Christ's total shame, we receive unspeakable glory: the complete forgiveness of all our sins, and adoption into the family of God!