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Why Did Mary Swaddle Her Baby?

Mother_Of_Jesus

When we read that Mary swaddled her baby, we think she merely wrapped him in a blanket. But that’s not what it meant to Mary and Joseph.

The reason swaddling was a significant sign for the shepherds is that instead of meaning simply wrapped, swaddling was a ritual performed for all legitimate babies. I like to imagine the process as Mary placed her baby diagonally on a swaddle cloth. Carefully she would then rub the baby with a small amount of finely powdered salt mixed with olive oil. Once anointed, she would bring the corners of the swaddle cloth up and over the baby’s arms, legs, and torso. Next she would take an end of the swaddle band, a linen cloth about four or five inches wide and up to six yards long, hold it under the baby’s chin, then wrapped it up over the forehead and then around and around the infant all the way down to the feet so that it held the baby’s limbs straight and stiff.

swaddling

During their betrothal Mary would have made the swaddle band out of fine linen and she would have embroidered it so that both sides looked exactly the same with emblems of her tribe, the tribe of Judah. After the betrothal period and during the wedding, the band would be tied around the bride and groom’s hands as part of the ritual. (That is where we get the phrase “tied the knot.”) After the ceremony the band would be rolled up and kept in a special place to be used when their first child was born for another ritual.

Thus, after Jesus was salted and swaddled in the band, Mary and Joseph would hold pray for a short time that the child would grow to be upright and righteous and that He would never walk in crooked paths, but would serve God. There is some debate about the reason swaddling was done, but according to the law of Moses all sacrifices were accompanied by salt and therefore salt is a symbol of covenants. Therefore, the explanation I like best for swaddling is that the baby was salted and swaddled to dedicate the child as a covenant child of the House of Israel.

Whatever the reason for salting and swaddling, a swaddled baby is a metaphor for a legitimate child that is loved and properly cared for, thus when Israel strays from the covenant Ezekiel chastises the people by saying, “Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite. And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee: thou was not salted at all, nor swaddled at all” (Ezekiel 16:4). In other words, Israel is so wicked they have become illegitimate children. They have chosen to be children of the gentiles rather than the legitimate children of their Father in Heaven who would have swaddled and cared for them.

I love this small detail about Mary swaddling her baby because it tells us so much. First of all it gives us a glimpse into the heart of a devout woman who cared for her child in the best possible way. To us Jesus Christ is our Master, our Savior, our Protector, but for a time, to Mary, He was a dependent child. That is a relationship no one else will ever share with Him.

But there is something else. Of all people, Mary and Joseph knew the significance of this child and the circumstances concerning His conception. They knew that despite the rumors and hatemongers this child was legitimate and so by swaddling Him they proclaim to the entire world that this baby is indeed God’s legitimate Son.

One can only imagine what Mary thought as she wrapped Him in the swaddling bands she had so laboriously made. From the moment of the miraculous conception Mary must have sought for any information about the fate of this child. There were many prophecies, and Mary must have hung on every word the rabbis and others taught about the coming Messiah. She must have asked questions and in the answers would have discovered the terrible fate that awaited her Son.

As she salted the baby did she think about the fact that all sacrifices in the temple were salted and that this child would be the real sacrifice for all sin? Did seeing him wrapped tightly in the swaddling bands of birth make her think of the shroud of death that would some day cover Him?

Whether she thought about any of these things or not, the bands Mary swaddled her Son in remind us of the day He was wrapped in burial linens and placed in a tomb. He was born to die for us, and by so doing He “swaddled” us, proclaiming us His legitimate children and providing a way to take away our “crookedness.” But most important, Jesus Christ has changed our burial linens into the swaddling bands of new birth.

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28 Responses so far.

  1. Michelle says:

    Jenedy, a very talented artist, painted a beautiful picture of the Christ child wrapped in these embroidered swaddling cloths. See: http://www.jenedypaige.com/

  2. Liz says:

    Interesting picture and story that fit this post! http://www.jenedypaige.com/gallery/little-lamb/

  3. Greg says:

    The meaning to the shepherds for swaddling is quite different from what you suppose. The shepherds where not watching any ordinary flock they were watching the lambs that later would be used for sacrifice on the altars of the temple. When born these lambs were looked over and if found to be perfect were themselves wrapped in swaddling clothes to certify their divine mission. They were free to graze in a pasture just for them found on the road to Jerusalem, and close to the city of Betlehem. So important was this flock that a tower was erected to ensure their protection. The tower affectionately know to those of the city as the “watch-tower of the flock” (is the Hebrew phrase “Migdal Edar” [mig-dawl ay-der] and means a “watch tower of the flock”) . This was fortold but Micah in Mic 5:2; 4:8. It’s grand design placed it high in the air; providing a look out point for the shepherd’s of the watch – those hired to protect the flock. An assignment given only to those who were respected; for they were to ensure that none were harmed or injured. You see a simple blemish or injury of any kind to one of these would disqualify it from fulfilling it’s sacred purpose. So it was to these humble servants who cared for the sacrificial lambs that the angel announced the birth of The Lamb of God.

    • Shantel says:

      Greg, That is awesome, and made a connection for me. The Hebrew word “Nauvoo” doesnt actually mean beautiful- note they dont sing that song anymore-if you have ever seen the pageant. It means “pasture or field” The Temple is on a bluff overlooking the pasture. ok. Mind blown. Its a true pattern.

  4. Shantel says:

    As the article says, the information is not definitive and additional research may be needed. Jewish weddings were not performed this way. We have texts from this time that shoe us marriages matched the tradition of Jacob. Signed contracts and bardering. There was no ceremony. .

  5. Frances Watson says:

    very informative

  6. Anonymous says:

    very informative

  7. Shantel Gardner says:

    Hello. Let me preface my comment to say thst I really admire you. And this id just an offering of information, not a critism.
    Some issues I have is that handfasting is not Jewish. It is not part of the ceremony. The binding is done identically to the Tefillin binding. Its a leftover Ancient Temple right for making covenants. The entire process is about the Temple. The house of David symbol would have been sewn on to it. Declaration he was the King of Isreal. I dont know why our information is so different. My sources are wrotings od Margret Barker, snd my own degree in Religious Studies and minor in Jewish Studies.

    • Shantel says:

      After thinking about it- while folding laundry- (good thinking time) It does have ancient Christian roots. Around 300 AD. Swaddling the baby is Jewish- but it being part of the wedding ceremony was post Apostle. Since Temple authority was gone, it could have come into practice as a way to symbolize the covenants made in the Temple. It was a practice that began with Eastern Orthodoxy. Which is a variation on the Nicene Creed. A good post makes people think- and you have certainly done that for me- thank you. You are awesome!

  8. Lyn says:

    This is beautiful to contemplate. Thank you for posting. We know for sure one thing about Mary; she was teachable….she learned from some woman, perhaps her Mother, how to honor the Mosaic law and how to swaddle and care for her baby. I would imagine she honored her earthly parents to have learned these things.

  9. Mary says:

    Asking for sources doesn’t make anyone miss the spirit of the message. Instead, it would give even more credence to the deity of Jesus Christ. The scriptural references, which are in the message, are already sources. It’s good to get more so that sharing the message may mean more to those who may not believe at all.

  10. Scoopy says:

    I would also love to revisit this story. Who were the hatemongers? Were they surrounded by people upset she was pregnant? Had they been chastised, threatened at all? I don’t remember that part.

    • Robert says:

      Perhaps this is a little a scriptural but it is not ahistorical. Mary got pregnant before she married Joseph, with a child possibly known not to be Joseph’s since he considered divorcing her. The punishment for sexual sin was death meaning Joseph could have had her killed. Even after Joseph accepted everything there were undoubtedly those who saw Jesus as Mary’s bastard child born out of sin.

  11. Julianna says:

    I don’t think those asking for references are missing the spirit. Some simply just like reading the history and significance of a cultural tradition in more than one place, especially something like this. How many “Mormon rumors” have been circulated that some apostle said something, or that some person was revealed something, and people later begin to shape their understanding of doctrine around something that is essentially the LDS version of a chain letter? Even the scriptures demand we use more than one witness. Never feel bad for wanting to know what research led an author or speaker to conclude what they did. This is a beautiful article that is full of lovely ties between Old Testament tradition, Hebrew culture, and the significance f the Messiah. If it’s all accurate, shouldn’t we WANT to read more in context? This is not different than a speaker quoting a scripture in sacrament without the reference, and someone later asking where it is found.

  12. Margrit says:

    Sherrie this is beautiful! Really touched me. A bit saddened by the folks missing the spirit and asking for references … Sheesh! t least right off the bat.

    • sylvie says:

      There’s nothing wrong with asking for a source. I would love sources, so I can study the topic in more depth. It’s that mentality that starts myths and false doctrine.

  13. Janet Warren says:

    If you look on lds.org and search “swaddling clothes” two things come up that make me use this posted information with confidence. First, a cultural and heritage description and the other is Elder Nelson’s talk “the Peace and Joy of Knowing the Savior Lives.”

  14. Tom says:

    Most inspiring! Sources would definitely help us solidify its correctness in our minds. It could then be shared with confidence for it would certainly be a worthy piece to share.

  15. Caitlyn says:

    Thank you for this post. I have been blessed with two children, and for some reason the story of Mary is really touching my life this year. This was beautiful and I appreciate you sharing your knowledge here; and part of your heart.

  16. This is quite an inspiring and insightful post! Would you mind sharing what your sources were for the historical context? I have never seen a reference to this before.

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