child Jesus is a good symbol of what we are celebrating this year—the
2,000th anniversary of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. It’s the
perfect year to explore why the image is so closely associated with
St. Anthony of Padua.
Next to Mary of Nazareth,
the saint most often seen in artwork holding the child Jesus in his
arms is St. Anthony of Padua. If there is anything I’ve learned from
visiting churches and Catholic missions throughout the world, it is
that the image of Anthony and the child Jesus is a favorite around
the globe. It can be found wherever Catholic missionaries have carried
the Good News, even in the most remote regions of the world.
Since I grew up in a
Franciscan parish (in southern Indiana) and was then educated in the
Franciscan seminary system, I was very familiar with that image. How
could I avoid it? And yet for most of my life, I seldom asked others
or myself: “Why is St. Anthony presented that way?”
I have consistently
found the image of Anthony with the child Jesus quite friendly and
likable. Even as I encountered artists who smiled at the image in
patronizing ways and dismissed it as too sweet and sentimental, this
did not keep me from finding the image appealing.
For a good part of my
life, I did not look for a deeper meaning in this familiar image.
Nor did I ask why the image caught the popular fancy of almost every
culture around the world.
for the Deeper Meanings
In recent years, however,
I’ve taken a whole different tack. I’ve concluded that this popular
image has developed in the Franciscan tradition and in the Catholic
consciousness for some profound reason. For me, it conveys something
vitally important in the Franciscan and Catholic spirit.
Exploring this image
is something like exploring a vivid dream we’ve had during the night.
We wake up the next morning and wonder, “Now what was that all about?”
We assume that this dream, emerging from our inner depths, may hold
an important meaning for our lives. So, too, the images that rise
from the inner life of the Church may well hold profound meanings
It is interesting to
note that, although Anthony has been frequently portrayed in art since
his death in 1231, images of him with the Christ child did not become
popular until the 17th century.
Before exploring the
image of Anthony and the Christ child, however, we should look at
one of the popular stories explaining the origin of the custom. A
good number of Franciscan historians, I believe, would advise us to
approach the story as legend rather than as solid historical fact.
According to one version
of the legend—and there are many—there was a Count Tiso who had a
castle about 11 miles from Padua, Italy. On the grounds of the castle
the count had provided a chapel and a hermitage for the friars.
Anthony often went there
toward the end of his life and spent time praying in one of the hermit
cells. One night, his little cell suddenly filled up with light. Jesus
appeared to Anthony in the form of a tiny child. Passing by the hermitage,
the count saw the light shining from the room and St. Anthony holding
and communicating with the infant.
The count fell to his
knees upon seeing this wondrous sight. And when the vision ended,
Anthony saw the count kneeling at the open door. Anthony begged Count
Tiso not to reveal what he had seen until after his death.
Whether this story be
legend or fact, the image of Anthony with the child Jesus has important
truths to teach us.
of all, we notice that Anthony is wearing a Franciscan habit. Seeing
him as a true son of St. Francis and a part of the Franciscan tradition
is very important.
It is a historical fact
that Anthony joined the Order of Friars Minor while Francis was still
alive. We know that Anthony attended the Franciscan chapter of Pentecost,
1221, at which Francis was also present. Although more than 2,000
friars came to that famous gathering near Assisi, it’s hard to believe
that Anthony—famous for finding lost objects for everyone else!—would
not have been resourceful enough to find a way to see and hear the
much-loved and illustrious founder of the Franciscan brotherhood,
or perhaps even meet him. Less than three years later, Anthony received
a personal letter from Francis graciously granting him permission
to teach theology to the friars.
What I’m getting at
is that Anthony, being a committed member of Francis’ Order, would
have known well the spirit, teachings, values and dramatic actions
of Francis. Like the other friars, he would have surely heard about
Francis’ famous celebration of Christmas near Greccio, Italy, in 1223.
On that occasion, St.
Francis had people come to Midnight Mass in a cave where there was
an ox and an ass and a manger filled with straw. And the story went
around that the Christ child appeared in the straw and Francis held
the child in his arms. How interesting! The story of the baby Jesus
appearing to Anthony is a kind of “copycat” story amazingly similar
to that of St. Francis.
Even more important
is the attitude or theology behind the story. Francis, we know, was
tremendously impressed by the “poverty” and littleness of God—a God
who left behind his divinity and chose to become a vulnerable child.
In God’s entering the human race as a little baby on Christmas Day,
Francis saw a God of unbelievable generosity, a God who held nothing
back from human beings, a God of total self-giving, humility and poverty.
The poverty of God
made a strong impression on St. Francis, according to evidence in
his Rule. In the sixth chapter, he instructs his followers that they
should “serve the Lord in Poverty...because the Lord made himself
poor for us in this world.”
Anthony would have read
this rule often. More than this, he would have taken to heart the
larger spiritual vision of St. Francis, which extended beyond his
fascination with the feast of Christmas. St. Francis also saw God’s
poverty and vulnerability and self-giving love in Jesus’ suffering
and death, so much so that he often broke into tears at the sight
of a cross. He saw God’s poverty in the Eucharist, as well, where
under the common forms of bread and wine Jesus humbly hands his whole
self over to those he loves.
To see St. Anthony holding
the infant Jesus in his arms, therefore, is to see a true follower
of St. Francis. For did not Francis also embrace that same image of
God’s vulnerability and humble love?
Eloquent Preacher Holding Up the Word
Another meaningful way
to interpret the presence of the Christ child in the arms of St. Anthony
is to realize that Anthony was a great preacher of the gospel—a brilliant
communicator of the Incarnate Word. In his sermons, Anthony emphasized
the mystery of the Incarnation.
In 1946, Pope Pius XII
officially declared Anthony a Doctor of the Universal Church, with
the designation “Doctor of the Gospel.” Clearly, Anthony had taught
Scripture with great power and effectiveness.
This leads us to view
the images of Anthony holding the infant in a whole new light: Through
his Scripture-based preaching, the real, historical Anthony was holding
and communicating to the world the Incarnate Word of God. Very often
the infant in Anthony’s arms is portrayed as standing on the holy
Bible. Can there be a more obvious symbol and clue that the Christ
child in Anthony’s arms represents the very embodiment of the Word
of God? Often, the child stands on the Bible’s open pages as if rising
out of the printed word itself.
In San Antonio, Texas,
there is a large and lovely statue of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron
saint of the city. The statue was a gift of Portugal (Anthony’s birthplace)
to San Antonio. It stands in a public park along the San Antonio River
in the heart of the city. The Christ child in Anthony’s arms stands
on the Bible and his arms are extended in the shape of the cross as
if embracing the whole world—as if Anthony is saying: “I hold up to
all, as Savior of the world, this humble God of self-emptying love!”
Too, Can Carry Christ
image of Anthony holding the divine infant is a symbol and model for
each of us. The image inspires us to go through life clinging to the
wonderful mystery of the humble, self-emptying Christ, who accompanies
us as a servant of our humanity and of the world’s healing.
This is the image of
Christ that St. Paul sketches for us in his Letter to the Philippians.
Paul urges that we take on the attitude of “Christ Jesus, who, though
he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something
to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to
the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:6-8).
This passage from Philippians
is a key building block of Franciscan spirituality. And if the infant
in Anthony’s arms were to speak, Philippians 2:6-8 would be his first
message and self-description.
Just as Jesus’ death
on a cross reveals God’s total self-giving love for us, so also does
his Incarnation (symbolized in the Christ child). The eminent Scripture
scholar, the late Father Raymond Brown, has affirmed that “the divine
self-giving” revealed in Jesus’ Incarnation is comparable to “God’s
supreme act of love...embodied in Jesus’ self-giving on the cross.”
Brown adds, “Indeed some theologians have so appreciated the intensity
of love in the Incarnation that they have wondered whether that alone
might not have saved the world even if Jesus was never crucified.”
This is the kind of
love that radiates from the Christ child so often pictured in St.
Anthony’s arms. Would it not be a good idea for all of us to go through
life carrying an imaginary God-child in our arms—and holding him up
to the world? The child, however, is not really imaginary or fictitious.
Two thousand years ago, thanks to the Virgin Mary’s “Yes,” the Son
of God left behind his divine condition and came to dwell among us
as a human child. Our faith tells us that he does accompany us each
day like a humble servant—like a vulnerable child.
Like St. Anthony, we
do well lovingly to carry this image with us on our life journey.
Anthony and the Lily
the Christ child, St. Anthony is often shown with a lily. Obviously,
the lily is a symbol. The real Anthony would probably not have
wanted to walk through life with a lily in his hand—especially
if he was preaching to a group of construction workers!
But the lily symbolizes
purity, innocence, integrity. This symbol has been especially
associated with the Virgin Mary and other virgin saints. In
Annunciation scenes, for example, the Archangel Gabriel is often
portrayed as arriving with a lily to symbolize Mary’s purity.
St. Joseph, too, is frequently shown with the same flower. Images
of St. Cecilia, St. Clare, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic
often include lilies.
With great frequency,
St. Anthony is shown holding both a lily and the Christ child.
A special significance can be drawn from this. Placing a vulnerable
child under the care of another human being shows a tremendous
amount of trust toward that person. The risks are apparent:
Any child can be easily harmed, neglected, misguided or even
abused by a human parent or mentor.
In light of this,
God gave Mary an immense honor in choosing her as Jesus’ mother.
St. Joseph, too, received a similar honor. And when Catholic
tradition—through its many painters and artisans—placed the
child Jesus in Anthony’s arms, they were granting the saint
a similar gesture of honor and trust.
By adding the
lily symbol, these artists were planting a big clue as to why
Anthony, too, deserves such honor and trust. In today’s world,
when children are so often victims of neglect and abuse, the
combined symbolism—of Anthony, child and lily—gives us rich
food for prayer and meditation. Our children, our Church, Christ
himself are sacred gifts entrusted to the People of God.
In many places,
lilies are blessed on the feast of St. Anthony and given to
those who want them. The prayer of blessing, approved by Pope
Leo XIII, asks for the gift of chastity, peace and protection
Jack Wintz, O.F.M.,
is the editor of this publication and author of Lights:
Revelations of God’s Goodness, an inspirational book from St.
Anthony Messenger Press exploring the spirit of St. Francis in the
context of the author’s life journey.
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