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Why St. Anthony Holds the Child Jesus


Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

San Antonio, Texas, is the site of this modern statue of St. Anthony. The child, with arms spread like a cross, stands on the Bible, reverently held by this great preacher of the Word of God.


Most of us are familiar with the popular image of St. Anthony holding the infant Jesus. But do we know why he is portrayed this way?

By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


Looking for the Deeper Meanings

Anthony's Franciscan Ties

An Eloquent Preacher Holding Up the Word

We, Too, Can Carry Christ

St. Anthony and the Lily

The 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.

Looking 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 for us.

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.

Anthony's Franciscan Ties

First 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?

An 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!”

We, Too, Can Carry Christ

The 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.

St. Anthony and the Lily

Besides holding 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 against evil.

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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