“Strips of cloths.” Are you kidding me? What’s wrong with “swaddling clothes?” When I was a small boy my mother would make bandages of strips of cloths. She would take an old sheet or some other discarded material, tear it into approximately one inch strips, and bind up our wounds. When I first saw the translation of swaddling clothes as strips of cloths those old images came to my mind. It was not a very comforting idea to have Jesus wrapped up in those old bandages. It seemed different than His being wrapped in swaddling clothes.
I did not really understand what swaddling clothes were. That was part of the awe of the story of God sending His Son. The gift wrapping was swaddling clothes. To me, the phrase conjured up images that were soft and warm. It was the step-down from the warmth and safety of the womb, but it was still snug and safe. Did Mary carry those swaddling clothes with her? She apparently didn’t have much, but she did have the material necessary to lovingly wrap the baby so He would be comfortable and protected.
Our modern translators want the language of the Bible to be easily understood by the average reader. That is a noble ambition. Yet, to try to understand everything in a vocabulary of 1500 to 2000 words, or whatever else they impose on themselves in their efforts, is a losing proposition. No matter how user-friendly the wording, there will always be “things hard to be understood.” I like the idea that some of the revelation of God to man maintains a mysterious quality. It is challenging and intriguing to realize that no matter how much we learn and study there will always be thoughts higher than our thoughts and ways higher than our ways. Does everything need to be presented in second grade language? Part of my attraction to the translation “swaddling clothes” is that it is not a word that is commonly used. It appeals to the imagination as well as to a time long ago. In my mind, it evokes a different and more emotional sense than does the bare phrase “strips of cloths.”
“Swaddle” means “to bind an infant (especially a new born infant) with long, narrow strips of cloth to prevent free movement; wrap tightly with clothes.” Swaddling is an old word. It was used in Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible. That is almost 500 years ago. The word is not as commonly used today as it apparently was in those days. Surprisingly, though, it is used more than we might think, particularly among merchants advertising for infants. Amazon has numerous offerings for swaddling clothes, as does JC Penny, and Kohl’s, just to name a few.
Now contrast that with another word that is used in the old English story of the birth of Christ. Every translation that I read says that when Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger. But when I went to the farm and ranch supply merchants and searched for mangers, I found that most have none for sale. With a few exceptions they don’t sell them nor do they advertise them. They sell feeders. If our modern translators were consistent, they would tell us that when the baby Jesus was born He was laid in a feeder. We should perhaps change our children’s song to “Away in a feeder, no crib for a bed.” In our largely urban society where many people have no clue where a steak comes from or how milk is produced, there is no connection to the word manger. While we accept the translation of manger without a problem, somehow we can’t get our brains around the concept of “swaddling clothes” even though it is used much more in common language, at least from an advertising standpoint, than the word manger. (The exception of course, being Christmas crèche advertisements.)
I’m glad we still use the word manger. And I would also be happy if we were not reticent to say that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes. To be candid, though, this is just my personal preference. The main message is still the same, whether we say He was wrapped in swaddling clothes or strips of cloths.
When Jesus was born in the stable, He was bundled up like most other children who come into the world in a loving environment. Unlike most children in our acquaintance, He had no bed to lie in. He was placed in a cattle feeder, a manger. Lowly birth, lowly clothes, lowly bed. Here was God, bending low, giving us the greatest gift, eternal life through His Son.
His gift wrapping was not shiny imprinted paper, but common cloth. The angel told the shepherds to go and find the new born babe in that particular kind of wrapping. That would be their sign. Not a baby in pajamas or a sleeper, but a baby wrapped in a special way. When they found Him, they knew it. How many newborns were in Bethlehem that night who were born in stables and placed in mangers wrapped up snuggly in swaddling clothes? Only one. No wonder “they made known what had been told them about this child” (Lk. 2:17).
What was it that had been told them about this newborn? It was that born that very day was their Savior. He was the Christ, the Messiah, and He was the Lord. If the angels were right about the baby being born, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger, then they must also have been right about who He was. That is the part that they were excited about. It was not how He was wrapped or where He was born that captured their hearts. They had a Savior!
The real intrigue of that night long ago was, as C. S. Lewis stated, that “God has landed on our shores.” Not merely God in some impersonal sense, but God our Savior came to earth. Without Him, we are lost. We cannot save ourselves. We need a Savior. Man knows that intuitively, despite what skeptics may claim.
Ellen DeGeneres had her own hope for some kind of savior when she said, “The only thing that scares me more than space aliens is the idea that there aren’t any space aliens. We can’t be the best that creation has to offer. I pray we’re not all there is. If so, we’re in big trouble.” She did not want to be left, as astronomer and atheist Carl Sagan claimed, “lost in the cosmos.”
The good news is that we have not been left alone. God has come. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This truth motivated the shepherds to go and tell others. They saw Him there, in the stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes. We are no longer lost. We have a Savior. Awesome.