Unwrapping God’s Christmas Present
For the Sandyford Christmas card in 2013 we have chosen a very simple motif: that of the traditional unwrapping of gifts at this time of year. The aim is to point to the best Christmas present anyone can receive: that of God’s gift to the world in sending Jesus to be our Saviour and Lord.
Now we might have expected God’s most precious gift to have come wrapped in satin or fine gold, or in a purple robe, as befitting a King. We can so often judge a gift by the way it is wrapped. If it is in glossy paper and decorated with ribbons and designer tags our expectations of what is inside may be raised. But God chose the most ordinary wrapping for this gift above all gifts:
…she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths [swaddling bands = King James Version] and placed him in a manger
This will be a sign unto you; You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2: 7, 11)
Now it seems that very little has been said about the wrapping as the eye of most of the commentators is drawn to scenes around the stable and to all the participants in the narrative of Christ’s birth. The practice of wrapping a baby in ‘swaddling bands’ was commonplace at the time, and would seem to have continued right up until the seventeenth century. The swaddle band, made by tying together strips of linen cloth about a few inches wide and up to six metres long, was held under the baby’s chin, then wrapped up over the forehead and then around the baby all the way down to the feet. It was thought that the newborn baby, freed from the tight confines of the womb, might injure himself by jerky motions of the limbs. The wrappings kept such motions to a minimum for the first days after birth.
Curiously, there has been a resurgence of interest in the practice in the last few years. In fact, one newspaper article in September last year ran the ironic title: ‘To swaddle or not to swaddle: that is the parental question’. The New York Times opened a site on the ‘the right way to swaddle’. The debate has been sustained over this last year. While not on the same scale as the breast versus bottle issue, it is nevertheless a controversy in infant-rearing discussions, engaging medics, parents and journalists in local and national newspapers. However, in all the comments there is barely a passing reference to the Bethlehem story.
The Cradle and the Cross
Many of the biblical commentators themselves go no further than suggesting that the wrapping of the baby Jesus in swaddling cloths illustrates Mary’s care for the child. But to concentrate solely on good maternity practice is to miss the close association of the birth and the death of Jesus, and the explanation of his mission in leaving heaven to come among us. We can so easily become sentimental about the nativity and so many of the religious depictions of the Bethlehem story treat the event in isolation. However, we cannot separate Bethlehem from Calvary. The very wrapping of Jesus in the strips of linen foreshadows the binding of his body in the funeral shroud after his death:
Then he [Joseph of Arimathea] took it [the body of Jesus] down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no-one had yet been laid. (Luke 23: 53)
The linen used in Bethlehem by Joseph would have been what a carpenter could afford. The manger cut out of the rock in the stable would also have been roughly hewn. The linen used by the rich Joseph of Arimathea would have been of finer quality, as would have been the sculpturing of the rock for the tomb of Jesus. Yet this tight wrapping, almost mummification, of Jesus in his birth and death shows this willingness, as the second Adam and as the perfect man, to identify with us in our helplessness and to humble himself in his total dependence on the Father, in the plan of our salvation, fully persuaded that the Father would unwrap the linen and raise him from the dead on that first Easter morning.
Unwrapping the Gift
Unwrapping a gift, has, it would appear, become an art form. So many parents share on YouTube the moment when their children, and even their pets, open their presents! It would also appear that how you unwrap a gift can tell you so much about your personality. The Neat Method of loosening the tape from the wrapping paper without ripping it, then smoothing the paper and saving it for next year, apparently might, according to Kathryn Williams, suggest that you are good at dominoes, while, conversely, the Scorched Earth method, which leaves behind a mass of shredded cellophane, crumpled tissue, and ribbons, may be traced to a troubled and often disappointed childhood. How applicable such categorization may be is open to debate. However, how we unwrap God’s gift is of eternal significance.
In Christ’s day, many did not open God’s present at all. The lack of interest in the Christmas message is not confined to a twenty-first century postmodern culture. In Jesus‘ day, the majority ignored his coming. As John stated: ’He came to that which was his own, but his own did not recognize him. (John 1: 11) From the people of Jerusalem, only two responded to the gift, Simeon and Anna. (Luke 2: 8-38) Later, the people of Nazareth failed to see beyond the humble external wrapping (‘Is this not the carpenter’s son?’ (Matthew 13: 55)). How easy it is to be over-familiar with the narrative, even to sing with Wesley such words as ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the incarnate deity’ and yet miss out on its awesome significance. Some may go to a Christmas Service but leave Jesus in his swaddling bands for the rest of the year. What a disappointment to God the Father, who has given his most expensive gift in depriving heaven of its supreme treasure!
Among others unwilling to unwrap God’s gift are, paradoxically, some of the religious leaders, whose rejection is perhaps the saddest of all. The Chief Priests and the Scribes, the theological masterminds of the day, were schooled in all the prophecies, including the one in Micah 5: 2, which spelled out clearly that Bethlehem was going to be the birth-place of the Messiah. The King who ruled from a manger and a cross was, however, not the kind of deliverer they were expecting. They sent the gift back unopened to the person who had sent it, as they collaborated in the crucifixion. Their pride would not allow them to accept something to which they could not contribute. We may be critical of the self-preoccupation of the religious leaders but we may sometimes think that we ourselves can add to Christ’s work, or feel that our failures are somehow greater than Christ’s ability to forgive. Paul had to write to not a few churches to remind them that their salvation was by grace alone. We can rightly be suspicious of any commercial pitch offering a free gift. However, God’s offer of salvation is genuinely free of charge. What a relief that we do not have to purchase our salvation. How could we ever have afforded it?
How then do we unwrap the gift? There are many methods but one single outcome. At last Sunday’s admission service we had 8 wonderfully diverse testimonies of how young and older people had come to accept Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. In the New Testament, the unwrapping of the message of the cradle and the cross is equally diverse. Perhaps, in the space available, the testimony of two groups will suffice to give helpful illustration to readers within the congregation who are enquiring about Jesus, and will offer a counterpoint to those mentioned above who showed no interest in the Christ-child. These two groups could not have been more different! The shepherds were social outcasts, the lowest of the low, living below the poverty level, uneducated, renowned for their dishonesty and craftiness; the Magi (the Wise Men), on the other hand, were highly influential foreign dignitaries, who had the ear of King Herod, very wealthy, very knowledgeable, renowned for their intellectual integrity. The shepherds heard the news while tending their flocks in the fields; the Magi were guided by a star. Both groups made their search their top priority: the shepherds left their flock and ran to the stable; the Magi travelled a very long distance from the East to Bethlehem. Both costly journeys! For the shepherds, abandoning the flock was unthinkable; for the Magi, the life-threatening hazards on the way would have deterred all but the totally committed. On seeing the new-born King, their reactions reflected those of the millions in the last 2000 years who have met Jesus by faith. The shepherds, we are told, returned, ‘glorifying and praising God’ (Luke 2: 20). The Magi worshipped with gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh (a spice which anticipated the burial of Jesus (John 19: 39), which shows again the correlation between Jesus' birth and death).
These two groups show the infinite extent of the grace of God at Bethlehem and Calvary. Nobody is beyond the reception of this gift. What encouragement this should give us in our street evangelism at the gazebo, in our various initiatives, in our invitations to relatives and friends to come to our Christmas services. The cardboard-city dweller and the hyper-intelligent student are no different from those mentioned, who saw beyond the wrapping around the incarnate Son of God. Who would have believed that such a disparate group could experience so much joy in finding God’s present?
Both the shepherds and the Magi had that child-like sense of wonder as they discovered for themselves what lay in the swaddling bands. Nothing could keep them back. As we approach the stable we need that sense of expectation and delight of the children who cannot wait to unwrap their presents. How many children will have had a sneak preview before Christmas Day itself! This year we have arranged services so that we prepare ourselves to derive maximum benefit from the celebration of the coming of our Saviour. Whether ‘we keep times or seasons’ (and we accept that the early Christian church in its celebration of Christmas was reacting to an existing pagan festival) we take up this opportunity for worship and for evangelism.
May we join with the shepherds and the Magi in true celebration and thanksgiving to God as we unwrap anew this gift which goes beyond all words and imagining:
Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9: 15)
On behalf of the congregation may I also thank you for all your prayers and support, which mean more than words can say, and extend to you our very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.
Session ClerkView All Letters