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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus


Fourth Wednesday in Advent

I delight greatly in the Lord;

my soul rejoices in my God.

For he has clothed me with garments of salvation

and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,

as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the soil makes the sprout come up

and a garden causes seeds to grow,

so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness

and praise spring up before all nations.

Isaiah 61:10-11

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Luke 2:1-7

How shall we prepare a place for the Lord? And where? This Advent season we looked at some of the simple surroundings into which our Lord Jesus first came, hoping to find lessons there in the stone, straw, and oil for our own preparing. In this final lesson before Christmas we will continue looking at the plain and simple things relating to Jesus’ birth, today focusing on the swaddling clothes in which Mary wrapped our infant Savior.

A number of years ago, a major American church body sent a worship newsletter to its member congregations. The mailing arrived right before Christmas, but it had to do with the upcoming Lenten and Easter seasons. Among the worship helps offered was a listing of appropriate choir music for those seasons. The title of one anthem is familiar; it’s a direct quote from Isaiah 53: “Surely He hath borne our griefs.” But somehow the typist made an error that slipped right past the proofreader. Instead of “Surely He hath borne our griefs,” the title in the brochure proudly proclaimed, “Surely He hath borne our briefs”! Yes, that last word began with a “B”.

That’s almost sacrilegious, isn’t it? Certainly irreverent – or is it? Or is it rather a strange but accurate way of proclaiming the truth at the very heart of the Christmas story, a truth the Bible tells in almost the same terms. For right in between “She brought forth her first-born son” and “Laid Him in a manger,” it says that Mary “Wrapped Him in swaddling clothes.” If Jesus had been born in our century, Luke would have written, “She diapered Him.”

Surely he hath borne our briefs. And if it sounds embarrassing to put it that way, that’s precisely the point! We’re talking about embarrassment here. We’re talking about the deep humiliation which the eternal Son of God endured. Not only to be wrapped in human flesh and blood – that in itself would be humility enough but to begin with infant flesh and blood. Think of it. The One who controls the universe put Himself into a situation where He couldn’t even control his bladder! The suffering our Lord endured was not as antiseptic and academic as we often like to picture it. No – it begins with dirty diapers. Surely He hath borne our briefs!

It ends that way as well, with degrading humiliation. Think of every picture you’ve ever seen of the crucifixion of Jesus. What is He wearing, nailed to the cross? A “loin cloth,” we say. Yes, but to be blunt about it, Jesus is pictured being crucified in His underwear. Surely He hath borne our briefs. They jeered Him there; they laughed at Him and mocked Him. They found the whole tortuous ordeal amusing! While physically suffering the pain of crucifixion, and while paying for our sins by being forsaken by His Heavenly Father – at the same time the Son of God is seen as suffering base humiliation, dying in front of everyone in His loin cloth. Surely He hath borne our briefs!

But God taking on flesh to become one of us was even more humiliating than that. The artists portraying His crucifixion painted a loin cloth out of respect. He came into this world naked, and most surely left it the same way. Do you think that people capable of crucifying someone are going to be concerned about that person’s modesty? Of course not! And here’s where I see the swaddling clothes as a picture of what Jesus came to do. For swaddling clothes are long, narrow bands of cloth that are wrapped around a newborn baby to ensure that the body and arms and legs will be straight. So Mary didn’t diaper Him – I suppose she did that too – but she “wrapped Him is swaddling clothes.” That was how it all began.

And it ended like that, too. As John tells us in his Gospel: “Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. He was accompanied by Nicodemus (who) brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.” (John 19:38-40)

So Jesus’ birth foreshadowed His death. But that’s why He came, isn’t it? As Isaiah said, “to be clothed with garments of salvation.”

Remember the typographical error, “Surely He hath borne our briefs”? Well, a lawyer read that and looked at it differently. “In my profession,” he said, “the word ‘brief’ means the legal arguments that are gathered in a case – the accusations – the charges. Which is how St. Paul discusses the coming of Christ in his telling of the Christmas story. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law.” (Gal. 4:4)

That’s why Jesus endured that great humiliation. He did it so that we might be covered with His forgiveness and robed in His righteousness.

And that, finally, is the most proper preparation of all. Welcome your Lord this Christmas by wearing the wedding gown He has provided, the robe made white by the blood of the Lamb. He allowed Himself to be dressed otherwise, wrapped in swaddling clothes and wrapped in grave clothes – for us!

That’s what Christmas is all about – God who loves us so much that He gave us the greatest present that could ever be given – Jesus, His Son, our Lord and Savior.


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