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.
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.