“YE SHALL find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
There is something strangely attractive about the word “swaddling”. It comes, through Middle English, from “swathe”, which meant both a path and a strip of material, and then came to mean the act of wrapping up closely. So, Wycliffe’s translation of Luke had Jesus wrapped in “swathing clothes”.
The word “swaddling” carries with it a sense of closeness and comfort, and yet also suggests that there will be freedom and release in the unwrapping.
Lancelot Andrewes, the great preacher and contributing translator of the Authorised Version, also reflected on this word. In his famous Christmas sermon on Christ as the Verbum Infans, “the Word without a word”, a sermon that had such a strong influence on T. S. Eliot, Andrewes says of the word “swaddled”:
. . . and that a wonder too. “He, that (as the thirty-eighth of Job he saith) “taketh the vast body of the main sea, turns it to and fro, as a little child, and rolls it about with the swaddling bands of darkness;” — He to come thus into clouts, Himself!
It’s a wonderful image from Job, of the sea turned to and fro in the swaddling bands of darkness. And then Andrewes brings it all home to the stable again with that common word “clouts”, still preserved for us in the saying “ne’re cast a clout till may be out”.
Luther, too, was drawn to the image of Christ wrapped in swaddling bands. In his introduction to the Old Testament, he described the pages of the Bible as being like the swaddling clothes that Mary wrapped Jesus in:
Here (in the scripture) you will find the swaddling-clothes and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and little are the swaddling-clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them.
John Donne took Luther up on that, and, in a sermon on the use and abuse of scripture, said that we must turn each page of the Bible as though we were turning back the cloth that wraps our Saviour: our sole purpose is to reveal the radiance of the living Christ. If we use the words of scripture for any purpose other than to show Christ and his love, they no longer have authority or contain treasure, but are just rags.
That image of the precious and eternal, wrapped for a while in rags, seems to have spoken deeply to Donne, and he came to see that it is true of each of us, too: that the eternity in each of us is wrapped for a while in time; but that, sometimes, at moments of great spiritual or emotional intensity, time itself seems to fall away from us in rags. So, in an exaltation of love, in his poem “The Sunne Rising”, he says:
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
And he returns to that great phrase from the love poetry of his youth, when, as Dean of St Paul’s, he wanted to speak of God’s mercy:
We begin with that which is elder than our beginning, and shall overlive our end, the mercy of God. . . The names of first and last derogate from it, for first and last are but rags of time, and his mercy hath no relation to time, no limitation in time, it is not first nor last, but eternal, everlasting.
For me, the promise that one day the rags of time will fall away from us is at once the promise of new birth and the promise of resurrection, and I have always felt some sense of connection between the swaddling cloths of which the angels spoke at Christmas and the linen cloths that Jesus left lying folded in his empty tomb where the angels stood.
I wove together all these feelings and presentiments as though they, too, were swaddling bands, when I came to write “O Emmanuel”, the final poem in my sequence on the Advent Antiphons.
For Advent led me to look forward not only to Christmas but also beyond Christmas, to a new birth for humanity and for the whole cosmos, which is promised through the birth of God in our midst. Because the birth of Christ is itself the sign of the other birth that Christ promises: the birth of the Kingdom of God, and ourselves born anew within it.
Indeed, he says of the pains of his Passion that they are the birth-pangs of his Kingdom: “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world’ (John 16.21).
This is what led me to pray in my poem that Christ might “make a womb of all this wounded world”.
At Christmas, Christ is wrapped in swaddling bands. We know the significance of that wrapping only when we come to the parallel moment when he is wrapped in his grave clothes, for they are the swaddling bands of the coming Kingdom, which he unwraps and lays aside at the moment of his resurrection and our promised new birth.
And so, at the end of my sonnet, I took up and renewed Donne’s exultant phrase about “the rags of time”, suggesting that time itself is the swaddling band from which the coming of God’s Kingdom will release us.
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us,
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us, Wisdom, come, unspoken Name,
Come, Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame.
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
Poem from Sounding the Seasons (Canterbury Press, 2012 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99)). In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner collection is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99).