Gospel of Luke, Nativity Passage Commentary

A Thought for Christmas

– Father Thomas A. Thompson, S.M.


"And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant
wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger." (Luke 2,12)

St. Luke's Gospel contrasts the splendor of the angels' announcement to the shepherds with the lowliness of Jesus in the manger. On that first Christmas eve, the Gospel relates that the glory of the Lord shone upon the shepherds, and, struck with fear, they heard the multitude of the heavenly hosts singing. An angel then spoke of a sign given to them, a way in which they would recognize the Savior. He was "an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." (Luke 2, 12) Earlier, Luke had spoken of Mary, giving birth to her firstborn son, "wrapping him in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger." (Luke 2,7)

Since ancient times, biblical commentators have sought out the meaning of the sign -- the "infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." In the Old Testament, "the wrapping of the child in swaddling clothes" was a sign of the parents' loving reception of their child (Wisdom 7,4; Job 38,8-9; Ezechiel 16, 4). Ancient writers -- Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Ambrose--saw the swaddling clothes as a sign that the divine nature had now been concealed in the new born. More recently, commentators have seen a relation between the "child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" with the body of Jesus "wrapped in a linen cloth and laid in a rock-hewn tomb." (Luke 23, 53)

Luke's Gospel notes that when the shepherds came to the manger at Bethlehem, they found not swaddling clothes, but "Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in a manger." The sign of the swaddling clothes had been replaced by Mary and Joseph. Perhaps, Luke made this change to indicate that the parents of Jesus came to represent all that the swaddling clothes signified. They were the first to receive the newborn child, to provide him with that love unique to parents. They were among the poor of Israel who had been awaiting the Messiah's coming with hope and expectation. Finally, they were first among those who would follow and be present to their son, even to his final destiny on the cross.

Commenting on the Nativity scene, Saint Augustine wrote, "O infinity become manifest, O marvelous humility, wherein is hidden the total divinity." The Virgin Mary was both mother of Jesus and the first to believe in him. "Mary was the first to comprehend that God's word can be concealed in such a tiny reality as a child, and that in serving this reality the fullness or totality of the word of God is attained. Mary intuited the whole in the part, so that in serving the Child Jesus as well as in serving the little group of the first Christians, she served all of humanity. Her heart was capable of opening up to every creature, and this qualified her to be mother of the church, not only of the church that now is, but of that which ought to be and will be -- of all humanity." (Cardinal Martini)

This reflection appeared in The Marian Library Newsletter No. 39 (New Series), Winter, 1999-2000.

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