“And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Luke 2:12
This is the announcement the angels made regarding the birth of Christ to shepherds out in the fields. This is the description that would distinguish the Christ from any other in Bethlehem, allowing the shepherds to know when they had found him. So, why exactly would “swaddling clothes” be a “sign” to a group of lowly shepherds?
First, it’s important to understand where this all took place. Bethlehem, was a small town outside of Jerusalem with some of the most fertile hills in the region. It is perfect for raising sheep. Once every year, the Jewish people were required to travel to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple. Many people traveled great distances, and to bring an animal along the journey would have been very difficult, if not impossible. So travelers would stop just outside of Jerusalem, in the small town of Bethlehem, to purchase lambs that were fit for sacrifice, bringing them the rest of the way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Bethlehem was known for providing sacrificial lambs for the masses.
Raising sheep in Bethlehem was a common profession. Every time a lamb was born, it was inspected and if determined to be without mark or spot it would be set aside and kept for sacrifice. In order to keep it from becoming defiled, the lamb was specially cared for and never allowed to touch the ground. So, long woven strips of fabric were made with which they wrapped the lamb’s feet and legs. These were called “swaddling clothes”. This is why you will often see depictions of shepherds carrying lambs with wrapped feet around their necks. The clothes were used for no other purpose and the shepherds would have been very familiar with them. If, however, during the journey to Jerusalem, the lamb needed to be set down for some reason, the swaddling clothes kept the feet from touching the ground and becoming defiled, thus unsuitable for sacrifice.
So why wrap a baby in swaddling clothes? No mother would realistically want to do this. It was a garment made specifically for an animal. It would be like putting a dog collar on your child. Some have put forth the idea that it was because Mary and Joseph were poor. But in reality, Joseph was an older gentlemen and a known carpenter. In other words, he would have been somewhat established. While they may have had a humble existence, it is not recorded anywhere in the Bible that they were so poor that they were reduced to dressing in rags. In addition, there would have been others who lived in equal humbleness to Mary and Joseph, so being poor would not have been a sign that would have set the Christ child apart from all others.
Rather, these shepherds knew the purpose and the uniqueness of swaddling clothes. Being used to wrap the infant was a sign to the shepherds that this child was born – to die. This child was indeed a perfect spotless lamb, who would one day be a sacrifice for the sins of all men. A sign the shepherds would have understood very well. And in Jerusalem, some 33 years later, that is exactly what came to pass. Bethlehem indeed provided the only sacrificial lamb for all of mankind.
Celebrating the coming of Christ! God’s gift to all men.