Next to Mary of Nazareth, the saint most often seen in artwork holding the child Jesus in his arms is Saint 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 Saint 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 it 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.
In recent years, however, I’ve taken a wholly different viewpoint. 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 seventeenth century.
Before exploring the depiction 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.All around the world—wherever the image of Anthony with the infant is seen—we can admire this great Franciscan preacher. He is truly living the Rule of Saint Francis and proclaiming the gospel through the Incarnate Word himself, simply by holding up the Christ child, who has made himself small for love of us.
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 Saint 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 likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:5–8).
This passage from Philippians is a key building block of Franciscan spirituality. And if the infant in Anthony’s arms were to speak, Philippians 2:5–8 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 late Fr. Raymond Brown, eminent Scripture scholar, 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 Saint 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 as a human child among us. Our faith tells us that he does accompany us each day like a humble servant—like a vulnerable child.
Like Saint Anthony, we do well lovingly to carry this image with us on our journey through life.