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Swaddling Bands

“How did you sleep”

Nathan greets me with these words almost every morning. It’s a dangerous question because while I often sleep well enough, some mornings he’ll get the director’s cut of the previous eight hours. How I couldn’t fall asleep and then I woke up because I had to use the bathroom. How my dreams were layered and unsettling. How the cat startled me at four o’clock and how I lay there for another hour writing an email or essay in my head. How I eventually fall asleep only to hear the alarm go off an hour later.

To be fair, I’ve never been a particularly good sleeper – never been much good at stillness. But years of motherhood, of getting up with babies in all hours of the night, did me in. my ears are inexorably tuned to the faintest sound of distress. My mind is constantly trying to remember who needs what and when, and I find it nearly impossible to nod off without a book in hand. So I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received was a quality fifteen-pound weighted blanket.

Originally created for occupational therapy, weighted blankets are filled with plastic or glass pellets, and when they are draped over a hyperstimulated body, they can help it relax or, in my case, fall and stay asleep. While more research is needed, these blankets work on theory that something called “deep touch pressure” helps the body to regulate itself when under physical or emotional distress. Deep touch pressure includes physical sensations like a firm handshake or hug, stroking, petting animals, or even wrapping a sore muscle in an elastic bandage. While very light touch like tickling stimulates the nervous system, deep pressure touch actually relaxes and calms it.

You can achieve this kind of pressure by a weighted blanket, a twenty-second hug (proven to stimulate oxytocin production), or special compression clothing that squeezes and holds a body tightly. Deep pressure is also the phenomenon behind infant swaddling and might help explain why Mary wrapped the newborn Jesus “tightly in cloth.”

These “swaddling clothes” or “swaddling bands,” as some Bible versions translate the Greek word esparganōsen, were long strips of cloth, similar to bandages. And in first-century Palestine, they were standard in infant care. Soon after birth, the umbilical cord would have been cut, the infant washed clean of blood and vernix, rubbed with salt (believed to purify and prepare the baby’s skin for the elements), and wrapped tightly in cloth strips in much the same way you might picture a mummy being wrapped. So common was this confining practice that second-century Greek physician Galen cited it in his writings; Ezekiel 16:4 mentions it as a sign of care and provision; and Job 38:0 uses it as a metaphor to explain how God restricts the waters of the earth to certain places.

As interesting as this is, it becomes even more so when you realize that Luke’s record of Mary wrapping her son ”tightly in cloth” is the first record we have of the incarnated body of the Son of God. The first thing you learn about Jesus’s physical humanity in his need for comfort and care.

Because while these “swaddling clothes” served the obvious purpose of covering an infant’s nakedness, they also help a newborn transition from the womb to the world. For the nine months prior to birth, a child knows only the stable, warm environment of his mother’s body. He sleeps in a tight ball with every need effortlessly supplied. He does not know hunger because nourishment flows continuously through the umbilical cord. His senses are developed, meaning he is able to detect all sorts of sensory input, but his input is muted for now. It is quiet, dark, compact, and peaceful.

Then suddenly, birth ushers him into a world of intense, immediate physical sensation. His tender skin is exposed. His senses bombarded – every touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight is amplified a hundred times over. Lacking muscle coordination and the physical boundaries that once hemmed him in, he thrashes in the limitless open space of his new environment. He has no control over his sphincter or bladder.

Now image this. The God of the universe condescends to take on human flesh, choosing to come to earth as a baby. But to do this, he must cede control, even control over his own body. So that when he finally enters the world, he is at its complete mercy. Naked and disoriented, his arms and legs flail. His chest rises and falls. His heart races. He gasps for air. He screams out in confusion. His bladder empties, and his bowels flush merconium.

So his mother does what any good mother would do: she cares for him. She washes him. She covers his nakedness. She wraps him tightly knowing this will calm him both body and soul. She draws him close. And suddenly his muscles begin to relax, his heart beats slower, his circulation improves. His brain releases dopamine and serotonin. His breathing is softer now. He shudders and hiccups and, with one final whimper, falls asleep, safe in his mother’s arms.

When I think of how Mary clothed the body of this infant Jesus, it reminds me of how God clothed the naked bodies of Adam and Eve. After they’d eaten the forbidden fruit, Genesis 3:7 says that instantly “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked.” Just as birth moves a baby from one reality to another, their sin unexpectedly ushered them into a new existence. And in the blazing light of righteousness, they stand vulnerable, exposed, and ashamed. Flailing, they try to hide themselves, but everything is out of their control. Every nerve on edge, every sensation heightened, anxiety and trauma course through their bodies. They are disoriented and helpless, the curse of the world already pressing in on them from without, and the curse of sin warring from within.

But then Genesis says this: “The LORD God made clothing from skins for the man and his wife, and he clothed them.”

And he clothed them.

You might be tempted to read this as God being embarrassed or ashamed of their bodies – that their nakedness offended him somehow. Or you might read a kind of irritation into it, as if God begrudgingly stepped in to solve a problem he had not created. But reading it this way would miss the heart of a good Father.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,” God asks in Isaiah 49, “or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you.” And then later in Isaiah 66, he promises: “As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you, and you will be comforted in Jerusalem.”

And so he clothed them. He covered them. He comforted them.

Just as Mary received, welcomed, and cared for her son, God receives, welcomes, and cares for us, his sons and daughters. Seeing us helpless and exposed, he clothes us, wrapping us tightly in the bands of his merciful compassion. Even when we have only ourselves to blame.

So certain is the Father’s care for us that Jesus himself asks why we worry about it. “Observe how the wildflowers of the field grow…If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into a furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you – you of little faith?”

So certain is the Father’s care for us, all we need do is look at the cross. Because there, the Promised Son is once again stripped and exposed for us.

So certain is the Father’s care for us, all we need do is look at the tomb to see the grave clothes folded, the Son’s work of redemption complete.

So certain is the Father’s care for us that one day, when he gathers us together in a “vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language,” we will stand before him clothes in white – clothes in his righteousness, mercy, and compassion.

And so today with eyes of faith, we learn to trust this care. We learn to trust that the God who clothed and comforted his restless children in the garden – the God who was clothed as a restless child – will do the same for us. We trust that the bands of his everlasting love will hold us secure, today and for eternity.

-Hannah Anderson, Heaven and Nature Sing


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