10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ Luke 2:10-12
Imagine a grandfather’s delight as I poured over every photo of our granddaughter, Sawyer Marlee Smith, born into this world last Tuesday in Dallas! As I joyfully looked at the pictures I exclaimed to Rita: “Just look at her beautiful baby skin, and her soft, warm blankets!” It was all so wonderful to look at!
Then I turn from photos of our grandbaby blissfully asleep in cozy blankets I read today’s text about God’s Son “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Every time I read these words I want to both cry and to laugh at the same time. This is the profundity and wonder of Christmas! The Eternal Son, before whom highest angels hide their eyes, lies helpless in a feeding trough for cattle. An unusual place for any newborn, but especially, for Messiah God who has come to save his people.
But the angel tells the shepherds that all this is to be a sign to them: “you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This must not be a sign to help them locate the child because there must be hundreds of feeding troughs and mangers in the area of Bethlehem. Rather this is a sign to reveal something about the child’s life and mission. The newborn babe, pushed aside, and lying in a manger “wrapped in bands of cloth.”
Many of us are familiar with this text in the King James Version which translates this as “wrapped in swaddling clothes.” But most modern translations, including our text (The New Revised Standard Version), translate this more accurately as “bands of cloth.” And it is these bands of cloth that will be a sign to shepherds about the child’s character and significance.
When the Jews were in Egypt, centuries before, they had learned the custom of wrapping their dead in bands of cloth. The word translated as “bands of cloth” in our text, is translated elsewhere as “burial bandages.” And the Gospel of John tells us that the dead bodies of Lazarus, and the Lord Jesus were wrapped in “bands of cloth” (John 11:44; John 19:40; 20:5-6).
At the Christ Child’s great condescension, at his coming down to take to human form, he is not wrapped in a warm receiving blanket, but wrapped in bands of cloth. And as the shepherds find the manger and gaze at the little King he will look to them just like a little corpse prepared for burial. The significance is clear.
From the very beginning God had signified to his people that one day he himself would come, and in utter lowliness and humility he would not come to rule as earthly kings but to lay down his life as a sacrifice for sin. It will be just as the angel had told Joseph: “You will call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Thus, Christ our Lord begins and ends his life wrapped in bands of cloth. This is his reason for coming. He comes not be a great teacher, spiritual guru, or the inspiration for art and architecture, but he comes to be our Savior.
Here is truly good news of great joy for all people this Christmas!
We look forward to resuming our weekly classes at the Franciscan Renewal Center on Tuesday, January 5, 2010 in the Year of Our Lord!!