|Today’s scripture reading:
Earlier this month I attended one of the Christmas concerts put on by area colleges this time of year. In between the musical pieces, narrators read various biblical passages, including the Christmas story that we just heard. As I listened to verses from Luke’s gospel for the umpteenth time, I heard something I’d never paid any attention to before. Tucked in there among registrations, Nazareth, Jerusalem, shepherds and angels, there’s a little, overlooked mention. Mary gives birth to the child, “and wrapped him in bands of cloth” before laying him in the manger.
Those bands of cloth—such a throwaway detail. No need to pay attention to them, right? Except for this: they’re mentioned again a few verses later. The angels knew God was present in those scraps of cloth, and they told the shepherds so. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth….” There might have been dozens of children born that night in the city of Bethlehem, but the one “wrapped in bands of cloth” was the one to look for. Though I’ve never noticed them before, the bands of cloth that Luke describes are a homing beacon. Here…here…here…God—born to us this night.
English translations use different words for the wrappings that contain Christ. Some opt for a general term, “swaddling clothes”, which brings to mind the little blue, pink and yellow blankets used by hospitals for newborns today. But just as many other versions use some form of a different phrase: “pieces”, “strips”, “bands”, or “large strips of cloth”. That suggests instead the stained rags of old clothes, maybe with more holes than can be patched. Instead, they’re torn into long fragments, then wrapped around the baby to keep him warm against the night chill. I suspect this translation is closer to the truth, because remember who we’re talking about here? Mary and Joseph are unwed travelers, likely staying with distant relatives in Bethlehem. They share space with animals because they haven’t the status or money to afford a guest room, even if one were available. Emperor Augustus would have had downy-soft blankets. Governor Quirinius could have been wrapped in warm wool. But Christ? The swaddling cloth savior born this night will be found in holey rags.
Do you know the kind of rags I’m talking about? Certainly the physical ones, like old t-shirts repurposed for another use. But that which is worn out, rubbed thin and used up doesn’t just appear in cloth form. Sometimes people start to resemble such “strips of cloth”. I’m thinking about someone who feels threadbare this time of year when others are feasting at decadent, joy-filled tables. Those whose “tidings of comfort and joy” are marred by a zero balance in the checking account, a haunting medical diagnosis, no job to get a day off from, divorce or endless fighting, disappointment at God, exhaustion at caregiving, or bleak grief from the loss of a loved one. We fear that the trials, losses, and hardships of our lives have ultimate power to define us and our future, so we pretend they don’t affect or apply to us. Maybe you’re someone (like me) who tries to stave off such fear at failure by striving for the perfect life, yet counting all the ways we (or our children) fall short of perceived expectations. Perfectionism can become a fearful obsession—always checking things off on the to-do list, never enough, never sufficiently done, never able to truly rest. Do you burden yourself by fearfully pulling at threads of imperfection, until all of life starts to feel like torn rags? This is to say nothing of the marred world we live in, stripped of idealism by the realities of violence, abuse, racial oppression, overwhelming climate change, and fear of the neighbor. Where do you find—and feel—the threadbare cloth tonight? The rags, and the ragged?
But remember what the angels told the shepherds? “You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth”. On a night such as this, the God of heaven and earth is swaddled in bare pieces and torn strips. Such are the baby clothes through which Christ enters the world! Rather than being something shameful to hide from others, ourselves or God, that which is ragged is the very spot where Christ is born! God takes something which feels throwaway, left over, and used up, and uses it instead as the very sign of Christ’s presence. It’s so unreasonable, so unlike our human expectations of worth and prestige, that it can only come from far within or far beyond, as divine grace. The promise of a savior in swaddling clothes is this: you, me, all of us flawed as we are—even the entire imperfect, ragged humanity—are the cloth bands where Christ is born. That’s the message that the shepherds knew to look for. You will find Christ in the swaddling clothes.
When we feel ourselves useless or would throw ourselves away; when we wonder about the state of the world and feel reduced to rags, Christmas is the promise that in such desolation, God is present and Christ is born. Into the humble manger, into the driftless and fearful life, into mere bands of cloth. And from such humble birth, this child Christ will grow to become the Savior of the world. Let that promise wrap you in every bruised and hurting place. Carry it with you and offer it to others in need of God’s incarnation love in fragile flesh. Return to the humble manger as often as you can—any time you forget—to hear such reminders. Do not be afraid; you are enough for God to be carried in you. Let Christ be born anew this night. Amen.