The Worth of Swaddling Clothes

It has been a tough Advent. No particular reason, just the normal accumulation of life’s minor annoyances and difficulties. I am beginning to think that either Currier or Ives was on drugs. Life certainly doesn’t seem idealized when we live through it. Our lives don’t have pulse-pounding soundtracks or sudden pan outs or anything we have been conditioned to associate with emotional moments of perfection and bliss.

The phrase “swaddling clothes” hit me tonight. In a way, it seems so quaint, so picture-perfect Christmas. We never use the word for anything else. “Grab me the swaddling clothes for the baby.” Nope. I never said that or heard that. But the swaddling clothes in the Gospel were real.  And they were poor. They were the best that two poor but resourceful people could do in a pinch. And I bet they were not overjoyed about it.

The other night I was trying to pray, and was offering stuff up, the same petty annoyances mentioned above. I was basically unhappy with how my Advent was going. It must have been my guardian angel, but something knocked some sense into me and I thought, “I am going to offer up the fact that I think what I am offering up is totally lame.” This is the best I can do today, Lord, take it for what it is worth. And also take that it may not be my very best, but I can’t do very best right now.

When I think of a pure heart, I think of holy cards of the Little Flower. But there must have been times when her prayer was like that. And I think that Our Lady, our perfect Mother, had a heart so sensitive that she felt bad about the swaddling clothes. She knew He was God-with-us, and his kingly robes were little more than rags. I am very sure St. Joseph was a bit miffed about the cave or stable or whatever it really was. But I am also sure that they offered that up, too. This is the best we can do, Lord, take it for what it is worth.

But the Gospel tells us what they were worth. In God’s eyes, they were the sign He would give to the shepherds via the angels that the Baby was the Savior. The sign for Christ’s first adorers was the very detail of the story that probably had Our Lady secretly, silently upset, the swaddling clothes, and the manger, that make-shift crib that was breaking the heart of a carpenter who knew he could do much, much better, if only…

I hope you find this as consoling as I do. Things will never be Currier and Ives. Christmas dinner will not be picture perfect. Someone will spill something. Someone will not love all their gifts. Someone will cry and someone will hit someone else and say it was an accident. Some relatives will annoy you. Guess what? Offer it up, offer up the fact that you think it is lame to offer that up. That’s your swaddling clothes for today, that’s your chance to have a heart-to-heart with Mary and Joseph about the humdrum reality into which God Incarnate has just leapt. He entered human history, not a reality show. Human history is an elaborate tapestry woven out of little threads, little things.

In God’s eyes, those little things are part of his plan. He will point them out to people seeking Him, and people in darkness will see a great light. They may even see it in the serenity with which you deal with a blown out bulb on Christmas morning.

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.