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.

***

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.

***

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!

eric.m.johnston

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