by Hollie Ogden
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Luke 2:12
The nativity scene is depicted in countless ways: in thousands of colors, cultures, and set-ups. I’ve seen nativities ranging from wood to ceramic to little arrangements of knick-knacks that share a likeness to a mother, father, and a baby with a star on top.
Some specific details of the nativity are very significant and, interestingly, bear deep symbolism to temple practices both ancient and modern. When a child is born in the modern world, it is cleaned and given a few tests, then returned to the mother’s arms. A lot of that process, like cutting the umbilical cord and washing off fluids, remains the same from ancient days. Ezekial 16 verse 4 gives some insight into childbirth in the ancient Hebrew world; the world that Jesus was born into. Speaking symbolically of unfaithful covenant Israel, he says,
“And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all.”
Washed in Water
Immediately following birth, the baby was washed with water— not a radically different idea from today’s process. Washing is the first step in virtually all administered priesthood ordinances. It mirrors the open court of the ancient Mosaic tabernacle where a basin of water was placed where temple-goers and sacrifices were washed. We, too, are washed in our temples today.
Some biblical scholars suggest the salt mentioned in Ezekiel was mixed with a little oil and used as an antiseptic scrub that also functioned as a treatment to help the baby’s supple skin adjust to its new environment. In ancient temples, sprinkling the animals with salt was a common step in the sacrificial ordinances.
The symbol of salt shares meaning with Christ calling His followers “the salt of the earth,” a symbol of the everlasting nature of the covenant. It is likely that the infant King was rubbed with oil and salt— sealing his nature as the Sacrificial Lamb and symbolizing the anointing we receive in the temple. After washing comes anointing.
Babies are swaddled to replicate the pressure and constriction of the womb. To finish the process of washing and anointing or salting, Jesus was clothed in clean, likely white, swaddling clothes. This reflects both the special clothing worn as part of temple ordinances and the garment administered and worn in modern times.
Lastly, the baby Jesus was laid in a manger. Many nativities inaccurately portray this manger as being made of wood, but they were made of stone in antiquity. In ancient temples, the washed and prepared sacrificial animals were ultimately laid on a stone altar and offered up to the Lord.
Every detail of the Savior’s birth significantly foreshadows His role to lay down His life in behalf of those who make covenants with God. He was washed, anointed, clothed, and placed on a makeshift stone altar. When we make covenants with our Heavenly Father in temples, we are doing the same thing to ourselves: washed, anointed, and clothed in preparation to symbolically lay down our lives for Him and for our fellowman.