Why St. Anthony Holds the Child Jesus

Statue of Saint Anthony holding Jesus

This friar offerings a refreshing take on this beloved saint.

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 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.

Looking for the Deeper Meanings

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 St. 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.

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 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 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 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 St. Anthony, we do well lovingly to carry this image with us on our journey through life.

St. Anthony Messenger magazine celebrates Catholic Saints!

5 thoughts on “Why St. Anthony Holds the Child Jesus”

  1. ST .ANTHONY IS HOLDING THE INFANT CHRISTCHILDJESUS,He I believe is depicted in this way in accordance with the Friars and Brothers knew of his sevice,his life among them and those things passed down after him,that gave those who loved him sacred loving memories ,and inspired contemplations remembering him with silent prayers, novena’s asking God to allow his prayerful intercessions on their behalf ,or in seeking prayerful direction in obtaining special graces attributed to St Anthony observed by those who walked through life with him on earth as being particularly perfected in the Nature of St anthony,st Anthony had a fond adoration or ministry graced to him,by GOD that excelled to the favor of his Lord & Savior, enough that JEsus visited St Anthony as a small child and it is said in particular was known to enjoy climbing into the arms of the devout St Anthony to be embraced by him, others say and wrote of occasions they witnessed the Child JESUS in the Arms of St Anthony ,one of the explanations giving by the fellow friars ,monks & Abbotts and brothers dwelling with him at the franciscan friary in his day ,attributed this grace to the excellance of St Anthony in obtaining Purity,Gentleness ,& humility and a loving fervor to excell in adoration of Jesus Christ ,It appeared to those who observed and knew St Anthony , that indeed was graced by Christ Jesus to obtain the special grace and favor from God to embrace the child in his loving arms on many occasions as it also seemed a particularly fondness of the Christ child to find comfort and honor by being in the arms of the meek & gentle lovingly humble St Anthony~As with all diaries and memorials or recollections ,concerning the lives of the Saints and religeous, there will on earth remain controversy as to the truth of these attributes, graces,favors,or divine events as to whether they were indeed literal or figurative imaginings bestowed upon the person in question , TRULY as it occurs when describing divine graces /events ,For those who believe ,no proof is further necessary ,as well as for those who do not believe no proof is enough possible! Our God is ever present ,this attribute describes how JESUS CHRIST is and was and ever will be at every aspect present as the Christ. Infant JESUS, Christ Child JESUS, Christ Man JESUS,CHRIST CRUCIFIED JESUS ,CHRIST RESURrECTED JESUS,Christ AscendedJESUS .CHRIST the KING JESUS in every moment ETERNALLY PRESENT IN All ASPECTS of HIS LIFE And Ministry CHRIST THE SAVIOR EVER PRESENT in the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN ,as well as MISSION ON EARTH , the Question is not so much is this TRUE or that true, concerning the lives and times of the lives of the religeous,but more based on the faith and knowledge of those who follow these orders,seek to imitate these virtues and remain faithful to what they know personally is TRUE C0NCERNING,THEIR EXPERIENCES WITH GOD as they seek to serve him in the ways of excellance as much as attainable in their lives on their journey of service to God from the unction of LOVE for him by faithful service & loving devotion for him displayed to all by their life’s work here on earth !In this way God receives Glory due him in the lives of his people here on earth as they go forth day by day in his service of love and continuance of his mission upon earth to extend hope and acceptance to those who despair,to help guide those who feel lost who are misdirected and to extend the hand of love to the unlovely or those who feel unworthy of love forgivenesss &mercy of GOD,Christsfriends bring hope to the dark placeson earth they bring mercy they guidethe lost and shine the wayforward to those who feel they are doomed, The message we are each the lost child ,seeking safety and sanctuary in the arms of the loving JESUS CHRIST meek gentle,humbly bidding us come to him and find comfort from the fears that frighten us all as children walking through life’s uncertainties Blessed ST. Anthony patron saint of the lost, beloved kind humble gentle saint who adored and loved the child JESUS! Who we honor and remember for his gentle kind humility to the children of GOD ,WE ask humblly for his prayers and intercessions for us, to pray in his beautiful virtues and graces and excellances refined in his earthly life, to assist us by his prayers as we walk by faith on this earth A-men We belive in heaven we believe on Christ JESUS the SAVIOR, we believ GOD IS INFINITE, Yes we believe as St Anthony dod in the timeless prescence of CHRIST once .then ,now, is and always will be eternally present to those who invite him to receive them and forgive their errorsto guide them and love them ,for those will understand the sacred virtues of ST ANTHONY, those will understand anything is possible in the kingdom of GOD in heaven and for those who ask humblly on earth !

  2. Reflect on how a parent feels when they hold their young child.. Pure love . The child’s survival depends on the parent who will love protect nurture and encourage the child to thrive . The child goes into the world ready through our devotion. The most important part of human life is infancy and childhood and the experiences the human being has in these formative years shapes their adulthood.
    So too should we protect and nurture our faith in Christ . Love Jesus the vulnerable who needs us as we so need him. One body in Christ. Jesus needs us as his body to keep him alive and thriving in the world today. Nurturing and loving our faith to send it out into the world today

  3. I never read something more real in my heart like just read the page you all just don’t know what in my heart right this minute, I wish more people could this and understand what’s behind the meaning of Jesus in a human arms thank, thanks again thanks

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