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The Sign

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2.8-12.

This will be my last posting before Christmas so I’ve chosen this morning’s verses because I want to focus on one aspect of the Christmas story that is hardly ever commented upon; namely, the twofold “sign” by which the new-born Saviour was to be recognised.

A “sign” — the Greek word is semeion — is not necessarily something miraculous but it is at the very least something out of the ordinary and very unusual. So what two extraordinary things did the angels say that the shepherds were to go looking for?

To take the second first; they were to look for a baby lying in a phatne, that is to say, a feeding trough for cattle … which meant that the child they sought would not be in the room of some private house or inn but in a cave. All around the Bethlehem area, caves were used to house cattle during the rainy seasons and the caves would contain a manger in which to place cattle feed. “The first extraordinary thing you are to go looking for,” said the angel, “is a baby lying in cattle food-trough in a cave.”

But the second extraordinary thing that the shepherds were to be on the look-out for (according to most translations of the Greek testament) was a child “wrapped in swaddling cloths”, and that is where we begin to run into difficulties. What is extraordinary about a new-born baby being wrapped in swaddling cloths? Absolutely nothing. All new-born babies were wrapped in swaddling cloths. And that is why we must dismiss “swaddling cloths” as a misleading translation. After all, the verb sparganoo simply means “to wrap in cloth” — translators have read “swaddling” back into it — and once we get rid of the “swaddling” bit we can begin to see something wonderful here. For it is the type of cloth being used that makes the wrapping of this new-born baby in it a “sign” and something extraordinary and very, very unusual; for the cloth being referred to is nothing other than … a shroud!

A shroud! How do I work that out? Well, the second use of the caves below the houses on the Bethlehem hillside was as cool, temporary resting-places for people who had died and were awaiting burial. They were, according to Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, the places that bodies were prepared for burial and each cave would have in one of the niches in its walls, a burial cloth, ready for when it should be needed. And my suggestion is that it was just such a cloth that Joseph handed to Mary in her extremity on that first Christmas night and the cloth in which she wrapped her new-born son. That was the extraordinary sight that would greet the shepherds’ eyes and mark out to them this child as the long-awaited Messiah, the Saviour of the world. He would be wrapped in a funeral shroud.

I wonder, did Mary recoil from that shroud as Joseph passed it to her? Did she feel have any foreboding as she wrapped the body of Jesus in it on the first day of his life — any glimpse of the day just thirty-three or so years hence when she would again cradle him to her, wrapped in another shroud, taken down, torn and bleeding, from the cross? Had she any sense of how appropriate was that strange garment for someone who had come to earth to die for the sins of the world?

See Him lying on a bed of straw:
a draughty stable with an open door;
Mary cradling the babe she bore —
the Prince of glory is His name.

O now carry me to Bethlehem
to see the Lord appear to men —
just as poor as was the stable then,
the Prince of glory when He came.

Star of silver, sweep across the skies,
show where Jesus in the manger lies;
shepherds, swiftly from your stupor rise
to see the Saviour of the world!

Angels, sing the song that you began,
bring God’s glory to the heart of man;
sing that Bethl’em’s little baby can
be salvation to the soul.

Mine are riches, from Your poverty,
from Your innocence, eternity;
mine forgiveness by Your death for me,
child of sorrow for my joy.

O now carry me to Bethlehem
to see the Lord appear to men —
just as poor as was the stable then,
the Prince of glory when He came.

May the Lord Jesus bless each one of us this Christmas.

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2 comments on “The Sign

  1. micey says:

    This is beautiful! Have a blessed and happy Christmas Neil!

    Like

  2. Neil says:

    Thank you, Michelle. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas too. I am still being much blessed by reading your Haiti blog … http://haitishope.wordpress.com

    Like

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