by Deirdre A. McQuade
December 15, 2006
When my niece Isabelle was born, we would wrap her tiny, delicate body in a receiving blanket. The trick was to swaddle her firmly enough to keep her cozy without constraining her arms and legs too much. Once settled into her "baby burrito," she felt safe – as if in the warm comfort of the womb – and could easily be handed to other family members or rocked to sleep.
Two thousand years ago, Mary also wrapped her son in "swaddling clothes." After she bore him lovingly for nine months, he "stirred forth from his holy dwelling" (Zechariah 2:17) and she gave birth to him away from home in a simple manger. She welcomed her only son by naming him Immanuel, "God with us."
The angel of the Lord then appeared to the shepherds, announcing that the Savior had been born, "You will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." Mary offered her son wrapped as a gift to the world – and the heavenly host rejoiced that God made himself not great and powerful, but bound in flesh. He became like all of us: small and vulnerable, helpless and dependent on others.
Many years later, when Mary went to care for her son's crucified body, the Jewish custom called on her to wrap her son up again – but this time in a burial shroud. In grief, she expected to return him to the earth. Instead, she discovered with wonder and amazement that the tomb was too weak to constrain him. The power of his resurrection, not the embalming myrrh from the wise men, had the final word.
Every birth, every child growing in utero is a gift from God, regardless of the circumstances surrounding his or her conception. Every woman's womb is a holy dwelling designed to "stir forth" new life, yet one in four pregnancies now ends in abortion. Even partial-birth abortions continue unabated in the Untied States, since the 2003 federal law against that gruesome procedure has never gone into effect. The sick, disabled and elderly, moreover, are often grievously neglected, and women of all ages are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The situation is so dire, both here and overseas, that it is sometimes tempting to despair.
Yet the swaddling clothes are a perennial sign of hope if we bind ourselves to Christ as he bound himself to us. Christmas lifts the suffocating shroud of fear, deception, discouragement, alienation, and despair imposed by the culture of death. Because God is indeed with us, we can face our grief in hope without bitterness.
Like Mary, we can embrace the vulnerable ones around us with dignity. And, like the infant Jesus, we can humbly allow others to care for us when we become too weak to care for ourselves. Finally, we can work with courage toward the day when all children will enjoy their own nativity, receive a name, and assume their rightful place in the human community.
Deirdre A. McQuade is director of planning and information, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.