(A meditation for Christmas Eve 2009)
“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes,” the Bible says, and “laid him in a manger.” Such wrapping was a common practice in the ancient world; the newborn baby would be wrapped tightly in strips of cloth so that he could not move. We do a similar thing in modern times; the nurse will wrap the newborn so snugly in a blanket that she appears to be in a welded-on cocoon.
It’s a comforting thing for the child, of course; it causes him to feel warm and secure and safe as he transitions from the tight closeness of the womb to the wide openness of the world. Let’s face it, though—it’s a comforting thing for us parents and other adults, too, because it creates the illusion that, at least in that moment, the baby cannot and will not demand or require anything of us.
There is a silly scene in the silly movie Talladega Nights in which Will Ferrell’s star NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby is saying grace over his family’s fast food feast and he offers his prayer up to “tiny baby Jesus,” repeatedly addressing the Lord in that way until finally his wife interrupts to remind him that Jesus did in fact grow up to which Ricky responds that he’s the one saying grace and that he prefers the little baby Jesus and that when other people say grace they can pray to the teenage Jesus or the grown-up Jesus if they want to do so.
Like I said, the scene is silly—but in its silliness it can cause us to ponder a serious question: don’t we sometimes—often, maybe—prefer to cling to our image of the baby Jesus rather than to the truth of the grown-up Jesus? Don’t we sometimes—often, maybe—want to leave the baby wrapped tightly in those swaddling clothes where we can ooh and ah over him and then walk away, having experienced no challenge, having accepted no demand, and having suppressed the power and pain and wonder of the fact that the one who was born became the one who was crucified and the one who was crucified became the one who was resurrected and the one who was resurrected became the one who comes to us every day and who will come again someday?
Make no mistake about it—the baby who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger could not be suppressed or managed or contained; no, he had to be unleashed and unwrapped and turned loose on the world. That baby was grace personified, love enfleshed, God incarnate; his birth was the inbreaking of God into this old world in a way that was powerful in its simplicity and marvelous in its humility and magnificent in its grace and love. As he grew up he became more and more what his Father had sent him to be and as he went about doing good and preaching the good news and healing the sick and inviting the broken and lost and cast aside into the kingdom of God he stirred up something the ripples—the waves—the tsunamis—of which are still being felt today and will be felt until the fulfillment of all things.
But here is the thing of which we need to get hold—we dare not try to keep the baby Jesus wrapped in those swaddling clothes, which is to say that we dare not try to keep his love, his grace, his mercy, his forgiveness, and his challenge under wraps, which is to say that we dare not keep the love, grace, forgiveness, and challenge that he has place in the Church which is, after all, the Body of Christ in the world—in our case, the Body of Christ in Fitzgerald, Georgia—under wraps. We need to unwrap it and unleash it and watch it do its marvelous work in our midst and in the lives of those around us.
It was another day—a far different day but a day that was intricately connected to Christmas day—when Jesus, now a grown man, now the man who had so obediently done his Father’s will, now the man who had been betrayed, tried and arrested, now the man who had died on the cross, was again wrapped in bands of cloth, this time not as response to his birth but rather as preparation for his burial. They wrapped his body tightly and securely and they then laid his swaddled body in the tomb.
That is why we observe the Lord’s Supper tonight—to remember the Lord’s death until he comes, to remember so as never to forget that the swaddled baby in the manger became the swaddled body in the tomb.
But let us also remember that, like that baby, the crucified Jesus could not and did not stay wrapped in those cloths; again, the grace, mercy, and love that they tried to wrap up and put away could not stay that way. He is risen! The baby who was born, the man who was crucified, is now the Lord who was raised from the dead and who will come again one day to make all things as God intends for them to be.
He is risen! Thanks be to God! And Merry Christmas—a most Merry Christmas—indeed!