Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes: Poor and for the Poor

swaddlingFor you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
That, though he was rich,
Yet for your sakes he became poor,
That you through his poverty might be rich.

-2 Corinthians 8:9

 

For Christmas, two images for Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

First, he who is infinite constrained himself. The great Marian hymns of the Middle Ages love this theme:

O happy Mother, you are blest
Enclosed beneath your lowly breast,
Lies God, creator great, who planned
The world he holds within his hand. 

Your arms the great Creator pressed,
Asuckling at your sacred breast
Whom earth and sea and sky proclaim,
The Ruler of their triple frame,

He unto whom their praises rise,
Within the womb of Mary lies.
Her womb, the seat of ev’ry grace,
Is now the Lord’s abiding place;

That Lord to whom the sun by day,
The moon by night, their service pay.

Through him all things were made. And he is tied up in swaddling bands. They are an image of the death wrappings. But an image also of infancy. In either case, the purpose of swaddling cloths is to bind up, contain, restrain. Also to warm one who is cold. Jesus became poor and little for us: in the womb of Mary, and wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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Second, it is Mary herself who wraps her child. “She brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

The medieval tradition, perhaps a little closer to real life, notices something. My wife and I have had five children; one was a c-section, two were homebirths, two were with a midwife in a hospital. One of the homebirths, the midwife didn’t make it in time. But through all these experiences, one thing my wife herself has never been up for is wrapping up her own newborn.

Is this making too much of a verb? It says “while they were” in Bethlehem “the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth . . . and she wrapped him, and she [anyway, the verb is singular] laid him in a manger.” The “they” disappears. Not “Joseph wrapped him,” not “the midwife.” Mary wraps and clothes her own child.

(By the way: I am not a farm person, but wouldn’t any manger that holds enough hay for barn animals be big enough for mother to lie with child? I don’t know. The Greek verb is about “sitting up” in the manger . . . .)

The medievals see in this a sign of Mary’s dignity, the grace bestowed on her by Christ.

She is poor. So poor she has to give birth in a manger, without so much as a midwife. But Jesus, who is always for the poor, cares for her – not externally, but internally. He doesn’t give her a midwife. He gives her the strength to give birth and care for her child, and wrap him and care for him herself.

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Two chapters before St. Paul tells us that Jesus “became poor that you through his poverty may be rich,” he describes himself: “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

The grace of Jesus leaves us poor, with no room in the inn. And he makes us rich, so that we can love, and care for our children, and spread the riches of Jesus to others.

Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes became poor: the infinite constrained. But by his poverty he becomes so close to the poor that we become rich: represented by Mary, strong enough to swaddle her own baby – and Paul, rich enough to share the graces of Christ with us. These days, you don’t need to be rich or poor to use baby slings, they’re making a come back! You know what they say, history reapeats itself. You want to see what your baby would look like in a Munchkin jelly bean reversible sling, so do we!

(Not so) Silent Night

caravaggio nativityIt is perhaps time for my annual self-help Christmas pep talk.

For those of us with children – especially large broods of small children – one of the great ironies of the Church’s liturgical year is the singing of Silent Night at Christmas Eve Mass. The liturgy is beautiful. The world in silent stillness waits – to hear angels sing.

A favorite (if somewhat silly) memory of mine is one Advent before Christmas. I went to an evening of recollection at a very big, beautiful church. Afterwards, somehow, I had the dark sanctuary for myself. I pulled out a hymnal and hummed “It came upon a midnight clear.” The silent stillness. The beauty. The waiting. The expectation. The angels!

I seriously discerned religious life. I always imagine how beautiful the Christmas season could be celebrated in a monastery.

The last week of Advent has the beautiful and mysterious O Antiphons at Vespers: awesome food for meditation.

Christmas itself has four Masses: the Vigil, technically before Vespers, with Matthew’s reading about St. Joseph; then after Vespers the rubrics say, “On the Nativity of the Lord all Priests may celebrate or concelebrate three Masses, provided the Masses are celebrated at their proper times”: at midnight, the Gospel of the angels; at dawn, the shepherds come to the manger; during the day, John’s Prologue. Any of these is worth a full day of recollection.

Holy Family on the First Sunday; Mary on the octave; Epiphany on the twelfth day. The fabulous juxtaposion of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the day after Christmas; then St. John, the beloved disciple, the Apostle of love, whose amazing and profound First Letter gives the readings for the Christmas season; then the Holy Innocents. Oh, what liturgy!

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ACHR1052-dancing-around-tree_800pBut of course the irony is that this is not how we with families live the Christmas season. I’m sure I could do better. But one of the great realizations of family life is that we aren’t as good as we thought. Daily Mass and a pretty abundant daily prayer schedule, including lots of liturgy, was a no-brainer before I had kids – when it was easy. When it became difficult . . . a lot of it slipped. We are not as strong as we think we are.

But even apart from my weaknesses, how could I do it all? During Advent we try to light candles and do readings at dinner. In theory we pray Evening Prayer, with special Advent devotions to St. Joseph, as we prepare for the coming of Christ. In practice . . . gosh, the little boys are tired, bedtime takes a long time, everyone moves slowly. As for Morning Prayer and daily Mass . . . long gone, at least in our family life. I can pull off some of it, but for my wife, always covered in kids, it’s even harder.

Christmas Eve is wonderul: but when we sing Silent Night, usually one of my kids is crying, or throwing up. We always ponder doing Mass both Christmas Eve and Morning – but gave up after, with just one child (easy!) we had a diaper blowout on the way to morning Mass.

This year we have non-Church-going family in town. What should we do, ditch them, so we can have more liturgy?

And the twelve days, beautiful as they are, get largely covered in visiting family.

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Two quick points:

First, we can live the liturgy at a distance. We can poke our heads in here and there, and do our best to remember it. Later in the year maybe we will have some time to pray over the things we didn’t have time to pray over while taking care of the kids. No, my Christmas Eve is not a Silent Night. But both that night, and throughout the year, at quieter moments, I can meditate on the world in silent stillness waiting. We can live the liturgy at a distance. In fact, we’re supposed to: what we meditate in these days is supposed to come with us anyway. So let’s bring it with us. Yes, let’s imagine how cool monastic liturgy would be!

Second, family is part of the liturgy, too. The monks and nuns who get to experience the liturgy in its fullness cannot experience it in its fullness unless, just as we follow their liturgy at a distance, so too they follow our families at a distance.

Because Christmas is all about Jesus coming as a child, Jesus coming into the love of family, Jesus embracing the fullness of human life and relationships. We live our own part of the Christmas liturgy, in our not-so-silent nights.

That’s why we read First John in the Christmas season anyway.

He that loves not his brother abides in death (1 John 3:14).

If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from him, That he who loves God love his brother also (1 John 4:20-21).

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How do you reconcile liturgy and family during the Christmas season?