Everybody loves St. Anthony of Padua, yet few of us know all that much about his life. We know that he is the patron saint to call on when we need help finding our lost keys. But why does virtually every statue of St. Anthony show him holding the Christ child in his arms? We might have expected him to be depicted holding a lost set of car keys! Nor would it be surprising to see him holding a Bible, for he was one of the most famous Scripture teachers of his day.
But why the child Jesus? What does this tell us about Anthony? And ultimately, what does it tell us about ourselves, as we get ready to celebrate the feast of the birth of that child into the world and into our hearts? Was there something about this Franciscan preacher that can show us how to embrace Jesus more closely?
Seeing a Great Light. Perhaps the most obvious reason why Anthony is shown with the Christ child stems from an incident that took place toward the end of his life. Exhausted from preaching a Lenten mission in Padua, Italy, he was in need of a place to recover. For forty days, he had kept an extremely rigorous schedule: preaching from around six in the morning until around ten, followed by Mass. Then, right after Mass, he would enter the confessional and remain there until long after dark. Only then could he rest and eat. (Remember that the fast before Mass used to begin at midnight).
Because of these exertions, Anthony's fellow friars brought him out to Camposanpiero, a town several miles outside of Padua. There they stayed on a property owned by a man named Count Tiso, who had been converted from a dissolute life through the preaching of Anthony. In gratitude, Tiso had built dwellings for the friars—including a tree house for Anthony, so that he would not have to lie on the damp ground.
One night, Count Tiso was passing by Anthony's quarters when he saw a powerful light coming from within. He immediately rushed into the room, fearing that it was on fire. Instead, he saw Anthony standing there holding the Christ child. As typically happens with mystical experiences, Anthony seemed almost embarrassed at having been seen in such intimate closeness to Jesus; he made Tiso promise not to tell anyone what he had seen until after Anthony's death. Tiso kept his promise, but as soon as he did share this experience, the news spread like wildfire.
He Came in the Flesh. The incident at Count Tiso's shows how central the Christ child was to Anthony's experience and understanding of the gospel. And it's not all that surprising, since he was a Franciscan. After all, one of the hallmarks of St. Francis' was that God truly embraced our humanity by coming into the world as one of us.
This is why St. Francis celebrated Christmas one year by setting up a living Christmas crib in the town of Greccio. It's also why he constantly meditated on the passion of Christ. These were the two moments when Jesus was most clearly seen as human. Every time Francis meditated on these mysteries, he fell more deeply in love with the Lord. His followers have kept this tradition alive. To this day, Franciscans still venerate these two moments by fostering devotion to the Christmas crib and the Stations of the Cross.
For his part, Anthony was a true son of St. Francis. He never tired of preaching about Jesus coming in the flesh—a message that was especially important for the people of his day. At that time, a heresy had arisen in Italy and France, which rejected the goodness of the material world. Called Albigensianism, it was really just a rehashing of an older heresy called Manicheism. These heresies held that there were two forces in the universe, one good and the other evil. That which was spiritual was good and pure, while that which was material and bodily was evil and corrupt.
This is not what Christians believe. When God created the universe, he stated over and over again that "it is good, it is good, it is very good." The world and all that it contains is good because God created it that way.
Now there is no question that because of sin, things have become rather distorted. Food, the body, and other "good" things can lead us away from God. They are good in themselves, but we have been weakened by sin and are tempted to use them the wrong way.
The World Reveals God's Goodness. Anthony proclaimed the goodness of creation in various ways whenever he preached by drawing many examples from nature. In one sermon, he explained: "A tree is made up of five things: roots, trunks, branches, leaves, and fruit. . . . A sound tree is a symbol of good will, which to be good, must also consist of five things: the roots of humility, the trunk of obedience, the branches of charity, the leaves of holy preaching, and the sweet fruit of heavenly contemplation."
In another, more colorful analogy, Anthony compared the Blessed Mother to an elephant: As the elephant fears the smallest mouse, so also Mary, who is enormous in her virtue, fears the smallest sin! These examples show how Anthony appreciated how good the world is—far from being opposed to God and to everything that is spiritual, it actually helps us to understand God. The world is not opposed to God, it is a revelation of God's goodness.
When God sent us his own Son—the very child that St. Anthony held close—divine goodness became even more apparent here on earth. Jesus did not avoid this world: He became part of it. A later Franciscan theologian, Blessed John Duns Scotus, stated that even if humans had never sinned, Jesus would still have been born into this world. He loved us so much that he wanted to participate in our human condition.
These truths provide us with rich material for an Advent meditation. Preparing for Christmas doesn't mean we have to reject our human condition. We don't have to reject food, drink, or other ways of celebrating; we just have to use the good things of this world carefully so that they don't become the center of the celebration. The picture of the Christ child in St. Anthony's arms tells us that we must become childlike in the way we treat this world. It encourages us to celebrate all the goodness around us with the wondrous awe of a small child.
What Great Humility! Like his fellow Franciscans, Anthony rejoiced in something remarkable about the nature of God—again, something revealed in his visit with the Christ child. Rather than demanding obeisance, God was so humble that he made himself obedient. Rather than demanding prestige, God became small as a helpless child, and poor. Anthony used this amazing truth to teach his listeners how to become more godlike. To those who are filled with pride, he pleaded, "I beg you, come down because Jesus came down and humbled himself."
Anthony himself once prayed: "A carpenter and a poor virgin. O First! O Last! O Ruler of Angels! Obedient to a carpenter. The God of eternal glory, submissive to a poor virgin! Has anyone ever heard of anything like this?"
There is an expression, "Who do you think you are? God?" This saying implies that we become more like God when we possess power. Christmas reminds us that just the opposite is true. We become more like God the more we embrace humility and service. Likewise, when we stop thinking about ourselves and put away our unrealistic expectations of a "perfect" Christmas celebration, we will free ourselves up to embrace whatever grace and gifts God wants to pour upon us.
Anthony's Own Humility. If all of this is true, why was Anthony given the privilege of holding the Christ child only toward the end of his life? He had been preaching about Christ and the goodness of this world all throughout his life. Why would Jesus wait so long?
The reason might have more to do with Anthony's own heart and spiritual journey than anything else. When Anthony was young, he entered the Augustinian order in his home city of Lisbon. He wanted to dedicate himself to contemplation, but his family was constantly visiting him and disturbing his peace. So Anthony asked to move to another Augustinian house in Coimbra (which was then the capital of Portugal). There, rather than finding peace, he was disturbed and disillusioned by the many factions that existed in the community.
Around this time, Anthony met a group of Franciscans on their way to preach in Morocco; after they were martyred, he helped welcome the relics of their bodies. Their example moved him so much that he decided to join the Franciscans. He wanted to travel to Morocco and die a martyr there. When he went, however, he could not even leave the dock, for he came down with a debilitating fever—probably a severe case of malaria—that left him semiconscious for weeks.
Interpreting this as a sign from God that he should return home, he boarded a ship bound for Portugal. The ship was blown off course, however, and he ended up in Sicily. There he encountered some Franciscans who were on their way to a gathering of the friars in Assisi, and he joined them. At the end of the gathering, all the friars left for their homes, but Anthony no longer had a home. Noticing this, one of the Franciscan provincials invited him to become part of his jurisdiction, since he needed a priest to minister to a group of hermit brothers. Anthony was thrilled to join them. He finally had time for the contemplation he had always longed for.
But the respite did not last long. The friars were invited to an ordination, and when the preacher did not show up, Anthony's provincial told him to preach whatever was in his heart. His homily was so beautiful and profound that Anthony's fate was sealed. He spent the rest of his life traveling, preaching, and teaching.
A Childlike Heart. Anthony would have chosen none of these activities. But his desire to serve God's will was greater than his desire to follow his own path in life. And so, instead of persisting in his attempts to carve out the kind of religious life he had envisioned for himself, Anthony let God choose the better part. This act of surrender—repeatedly renewed over the course of many years—made him simple and more childlike in his dependence upon divine providence. Quite possibly, it explains why he was given the privilege of welcoming Jesus as a humble, innocent, loving child. Anthony himself had been conformed to that image. He had allowed God's love to remove any barriers that would have kept him from being as childlike as the Christ child he held in his arms.
This, too, is our Advent goal. As we contemplate the poverty and humility of Jesus, God invites us to empty our hearts of whatever is keeping us from our own surrender. He wants us to become childlike so that we can embrace Jesus with the same simplicity and gentle surrender that Anthony had. Then, people who see us—just as Count Tiso saw Anthony—will know that we, too, are holding Jesus in our arms and our hearts.
Fr. Jude Winkler writes from Ellicott City, Maryland.