The small biblical detail in the Nativity narrative was practical as well as symbolic.
In the Gospel of Luke many small details are given about the birth of Jesus. For example, we read how Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7).
This detail can easily be passed over, as parents of newborn children are very familiar with swaddling their infant. The custom of swaddling a child helps them feel comfortable, protects them from the cold weather, and prevents their flailing arms from waking them up.
In fact, there is a particular art in swaddling an infant and if you do it just right, the child will “sleep like a baby.”
If this is such a common practice, why did St. Luke include it in the narrative?
One of the reasons behind the inclusion of this small detail was to link it to the birth of King Solomon, “In swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured” (Wisdom 7:4). It is one of the numerous messianic images that are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.
The reference to swaddling clothes also has been interpreted by many scholars and saints to be a symbolic connection and foreshadowing of Jesus’ death.
St. Gregory Nazianzen in the 4th century made the connection in one of his homilies, saying, “He was wrapped in swaddling clothes — but He took off the swathing bands of the grave by His rising again.”
This is often visually depicted in early Christian iconography in which Jesus is swaddled in such a way that he looks like a mummy, and is even shown in front of the darkness of a cave.
Furthermore, it was a Jewish custom to bind the lambs who were destined to be sacrificed in the Temple, swaddling their legs. Again, this action further solidifies Jesus being known as the “Lamb of God,” who was sacrificed for our salvation.
Other saints saw the swaddling clothes connected to Jesus’ second coming at the end of time. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th century made this connection while commentating on the Book of Daniel.
We preach not one advent only of Christ, but a second also, far more glorious than the former … For all things, for the most part, are twofold in our Lord Jesus Christ: a twofold generation; one, of God, before the ages; and one, of a Virgin, at the close of the ages: His descents twofold; one, the unobserved, like rain on a fleece ; and a second His open coming, which is to be. In His former advent, He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger; in His second, He covers Himself with light as with a garment.
This observation by St. Cyril reinforces the two spiritual themes of the season of Advent, on the first coming of Jesus at Bethlehem and his second coming at the end of the world.
The symbolism related in this article is only a small selection of what saints and biblical scholars have seen in the swaddling clothes of Jesus and hopefully presents some more thoughts to ponder during the Christmas season.