December 29, 2006
 

St. Anthony and the Child Jesus
A Christmas Meditation

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

 

Q U I C K S C A N

What is the meaning of the sculpture?
With a little help from St. Paul
St. Anthony is still a popular intercessor

 

photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

I know this picture may look quite odd to many of you. In fact, you may be thinking: Yes, it’s finally happened—Friar Jack’s mind has completely snapped! My mission, therefore, in this E-spiration is to explain the picture in such a way that you will come to see a simple beauty and significant meaning in it.

First of all, the photo was taken last October when I spent four days living with the Conventual Franciscan Friars at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy. This statue stands in one of the four courtyards of the Basilica, which has a large Franciscan residence with cloister gardens joined to it. In this rather whimsical-looking piece of sculpture, the hovering baby Jesus is actually held aloft by the hand of St. Anthony. Many visitors come to this statue and hold on to Anthony’s hand to pray for a favor—or maybe just to have their picture taken with their saintly friend.

What is the meaning of the sculpture?

We can begin our explanation by turning our attention to the feast of Christmas we have just celebrated and to the mystery of the Incarnation. As you may recall, St. Francis—in the year 1223, near the Italian town of Greccio—gathered villagers and friars together to reenact Christmas. Francis saw to it that an ox, an ass and straw in a manger were brought into a real cave, thus reconstructing the scene of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

What impressed Francis most about Christ taking on flesh as a human being, according to Francis’ early biographer, Thomas of Celano, was “the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion.” Francis was struck by the poverty and humility of the most High God, who at the birth of Jesus took the form of a poor, helpless child. The Son of God let himself be stripped of glory and became a frail infant lying in a straw-filled manger. Later, he would show this same littleness and poverty, even more dramatically, in the “charity of the Passion,” by becoming obedient even unto death out of love for humanity.

A true son of St. Francis, Anthony of Padua was also struck by God’s humility and smallness. In his sermons—especially those touching on the Incarnation—Anthony showed that he, too, was amazed at God’s readiness to move from divine glory to the lowliness of a servant. In one sermon Anthony expresses awe “at the Lord of the Universe: wrapped in swaddling clothes” and at “the King of Angels: lying in a stable” (Sermon III, 7). In another sermon, he reflects on the awesome idea that “the one whose name is boundless is laid in a narrow manger” (Sermon III, 10). Just as Francis is said to have seen a real infant lying in the straw at Greccio (and even held the babe in his arms) and always kept his fascination fixed on the humility of God, Anthony of Padua is also commonly depicted as holding a child in his arms. It’s a way of saying that both Francis and Anthony want their followers never to forget the God who emptied himself, held nothing back from us and took the form of a little child and a humble servant of humanity.

With a little help from St. Paul

St. Paul had advised his fellow Christians to have “the same attitude that is also yours in Jesus Christ, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). This text certainly represents an attitude embraced by both St. Francis and St. Anthony, and is a key building block of a spirituality embraced by the Franciscan family.

photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

We return to the statue of St. Anthony and the Christ Child, who is both divine and human and who seems to have floated down from heaven. Okay, it’s a fairly simplistic and sentimental image. But it’s very much in keeping with the traditional image of St. Anthony as a “saint of the people.” Although St. Anthony was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII in 1946, we know he did not come across in his teaching style as a stiff or haughty scholar. Rather, he preached on a very popular level to immense crowds of ordinary people. He had a gift for bringing the sublime teachings of Sacred Scripture to a level that everyday people could easily understand.

Thanks to this statue of St. Anthony with the baby Jesus floating above him, we have a simple teaching about Anthony, the intercessor. Since the hour of his death (June 13, 1231), Anthony of Padua has been a popular wonder-worker and intercessor in the eyes of the countless faithful who approach him seeking favors of every kind.

The sculpture provides us with a simple Franciscan theology for understanding the role of a saintly intercessor like St. Anthony. We see Anthony holding out his hand as if inviting us to approach him. We can take his hand physically or figuratively as we pray for our needs. As an intercessor, of course, Anthony does not have in himself any divine power to heal us or grant us favors. Rather, he is a simple human go-between who has found favor with a great God. He prays and intercedes to God on our behalf. And here, as the sculpture indicates, the God Anthony prays to is a God who has taken the form of a little babe—a God of great humility and overflowing love conveying the attitude of a humble servant.

St. Anthony is still a popular intercessor

That Anthony remains a great intercessor is obvious from the long line of visitors who continuously file past his tomb at his Basilica in Padua. During my four-day stay, there was seldom a gap in that line. One after another, devout pilgrims pass behind his altar and tomb. They pause in front of the marble slab on the back of his tomb, many placing their heads or hands against it in silent prayer. And, of course, St. Anthony remains a great intercessor not only in Padua but also for millions around the world.

To explore further why St. Anthony is so often depicted as carrying the Christ Child—or to learn more about his life, customs and novena prayers—check out our “special book offer” on Anthony of Padua: Saint of the People.


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