The story we just heard from Luke’s Gospel is retold to us in many forms:
Through lyrics of Christmas carols,
Nativity scenes large and small,
and other ways as well.
For many of us this story is well-trodden ground. At every point we know what comes next. But something so familiar can contain within it unexpected depths.
I would like us to consider (this night/today) one phrase in Luke’s Christmas story to which we pay little attention. It is this: “She wrapped him in bands of cloth.” Some of us may remember an older translation, where he was “wrapped in swaddling bands.”
This action, undertaken by the child’s mother, is mentioned twice in the Christmas story: once, when it happens right after the baby’s birth, and again, when the angel speaking to the shepherds tells them to find him, and promises that this will be a sign to them: they will find “a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.”
First, it must be said that there is nothing unusual in how Jesus, just moments after his birth, was wrapped up in cloth bands. This was what was done for babies in that time and place. They were kept in this confinement for as long as two or three years to insure that they would grow up straight and well-formed. Nobody would consider swaddling a baby to be remarkable in itself.
Yet the angel mentions the wrapping of Jesus to the shepherds, and the writer of Luke’s Gospel tell us about it not once, but twice. Perhaps more is going on here than meets the eye.
The reference to bands of cloth wrapped around this baby could be a reminder of a passage in the Book of Wisdom, found in the Apocrypha. In this passage, the speaker is King Solomon. He’s explaining that he’s like the rest of us, a mortal molded in his mother’s womb, who, once born, began breathing the same air as everybody else. More than that, he goes on to tell us that he was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. [Wisdom 7:1-4.]
So Solomon, the son and successor of King David, is wrapped in bands of cloth as a baby. Centuries later, Jesus is born of the house of David as a son and successor of David in an even greater sense. He too is wrapped in bands of cloth. Like Solomon, he is a king truly human. His confinement in bands of cloth is important enough to be part of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds when glory lights up the night sky in the fields outside Bethlehem.
Picture the scene: the newborn a prisoner confined by swaddling cloths. Like Solomon, he is David’s son, and a king far greater than Solomon or David. This Jesus is a captive, a captive of swaddling cloths and so much more, but no confinement can keep him captive. [The theme of the swaddling bands of Jesus as emblematic of the confinements from which he will escape is presented in Edward Hays, The Great Escape Manual: A Spirituality of Liberation (Leavenworth, Kansas: Forest of Peace Publishing, 2001), pp. 305-6.]
He escapes from the cloth bands as babies do, because he outgrows them, he grows up, he leaves them behind as he becomes first a toddler, then a boy, then a man. He escapes the constraints of swaddling cloths. This is only normal.
But he escapes other constraints as well. The religion into which he is born is a high and holy one leading many to life with God. Yet it is characterized by hundreds of requirements, some of them far from God’s last word on how to live life. His religious practice is often concerned with remaining separate from others, whether those others are sinners among his own people, or heretical Samaritans, or godless Gentiles, or oppressive Romans. Wrapped up tightly in these swaddling cloths, Jesus struggles hard to escape, and he succeeds.
The gospels are loaded with stories of how he does so. He reached out beyond the swaddling cloths of religious restriction and social custom to demonstrate compassion toward the rejected leper, the marginalized sinner, and numerous others who are deemed unacceptable. That Jesus finds his freedom means that they find theirs as well.
People expect to see babies outgrow what they wear in infancy. They do not expect to see adults outgrow the taboos that normally remain unquestioned. Therefore, the gospels recount the conflict that ensues when the contemporaries of Jesus witness the spectacle of him escaping from the swaddling cloths of the culture they accept and support. For his trouble, they place him on a cross to die, and consign his body to a tomb. Now past thirty years old, his body is again bound in strips of cloth.
Again he escapes. Beyond natural growth, beyond liberation from cultural bondage, Jesus breaks even the power of death. He shows himself the true king, one greater than Solomon, greater than David, for his reign is to be forever. He wants to reign in every social situation, in every human heart.
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The Bethlehem crib leads to the Jerusalem tomb. One sort of confinement leads to another. And the Son of God, the son of Mary, escapes from them all into ever-increasing and irreversible freedom. This freedom he opens up for all his sisters and brothers, all of us who are created to reign with him.
On this night, the newborn baby is wrapped in swaddling bands — for us. When we celebrate his Eucharist, we announce his death and resurrection — which took place for us. The mystery of Jesus is an indivisible whole. The cross meant for the man is already present in the cloth wrapped around the child. And all of it happens for us.
Jesus comes to lead the way for all of us out of confinement toward that freedom which God intends for us. And so each of us may ask ourselves: How am I bound? What is it that imprisons me? For whatever it may be that enwraps us and holds us prisoner, we can be certain that for this the baby is born and becomes the man who dies and rises again. Whatever it may be that unwraps us and holds us prisoner, the true king has arrived to lead us out of this darkness into the bright sunshine of a life that is life indeed.
How are you bound? How are you confined? What holds you prisoner?
Perhaps it is fear.
Perhaps it is anger.
Perhaps it is shame.
Perhaps it is grief.
It may be a broken relationship,
a betrayed vocation,
a crushing timidity,
a refusal to trust God.
It may be a persistent sense of unworthiness,
an addiction legal or illegal,
an episode from your past,
harsh words spoken by someone in authority.
It may be anxiety for your future,
a desperation born of belief that beyond the grave nothing good awaits you.
Any of these, and many more, may be the bands that hold us prisoner. They may turn us into Egyptian mummies — lifeless, desiccated, ready to fall into dust.
But (tonight/today), strange to say, a king is born in a stable.
He is wrapped in bands of cloth, and eventually outgrows them.
He experiences every way we humans have to stifle our lives, and he breaks free from them.
He is killed on a cross, consigned to a tomb, dressed in grave clothes, but leaves them behind.
Christ is the eternal Houdini, able to escape from every set of shackles.
(Tonight/today) we rejoice that he calls us to freedom with him. May we rise and follow where he leads.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
— Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).