The Babe of Bethlehem

November 05 2014 | by

MOTHERS and babies naturally go together. Nowhere is this more evident than at Christmas. At this joyous season, we are fascinated by the many different renditions of the Blessed Mother holding and adoring her infant son. Christmas cards, Nativity sets, Christmas pageants – all portray the Holy Family, sometimes quite artistically, and occasionally quite uniquely. Less frequently Mary and Baby Jesus alone are represented. Rarely if ever do we see a Christmas card which shows Saint Joseph and the Christ Child without the Blessed Mother. We expect to see this perfectly natural rendition of a mother gazing with love and wonder at her first born.

Although he generally does not appear on Christmas cards, St. Anthony is the saint, other than the Blessed Mother, who is most frequently shown holding the infant Christ. We would expect this honour to go to Saint Joseph, but he is often portrayed with the tools of a carpenter’s trade or with the Holy Family in addition to his holding of the Christ. Saint Anthony, however, is generally portrayed holding a lily for purity and a Bible for his great knowledge of Scripture. In many cases, however, that Bible has the Infant Jesus standing on it, speaking to Anthony. Why, in the popular mind, does Saint Anthony seem to have more physical contact with the Baby Jesus than did his foster father Joseph? The reason goes beyond the truth that Joseph was a working dad who was busy making tables.


Pure and chaste


Thomas Carr, a psychologist from Natick, Massachusetts, USA, deals with victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. In an interview with the author in 1992, Dr. Carr stated, “I believe that Saint Anthony, who was pure and chaste, is portrayed with the Child because Jesus felt safe in his arms.” Most people are unaware that child sexual abuse is not a recent occurrence. Anthony knew perpetrators of this crime and spoke out against them in several places in his sermons. However, the Christ Child would have felt safe in the arms of any saint, and most especially in the arms of his saintly earthly dad, but most saints are not pictured gazing at and adoring Jesus. Why is Anthony frequently portrayed this way?

Many experts in the study of the saints believe that this portrayal stems from a legend which relates that, while Anthony was a guest in a count’s castle, the count happened to walk by the door of his room at night and saw a brilliant light flooding beneath it. Peeking through the keyhole, the count saw Anthony and a beautiful child rapt in conversation. Upon discovering the pious spy, Anthony asked him to say nothing about this vision until after Anthony’s death. (Madeline Pecora Nugent, Saint Anthony: Words of Fire, Life of Light, [Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1995] pp. 178-186)


Simple man


In addition, Anthony was known in his lifetime for his love of the poor and the humble. The only miracle recorded as happening through his intercession during his lifetime was the healing of a young girl called Paduana, who had been afflicted with a type of paralysis and epilepsy (Nugent, pp. 365-66). Moreover, when Anthony died, children, without being actually told the news, ran through the streets of Padua calling out, “The saint is dead! Saint Anthony is dead!”

Despite his wondrous intelligence, prodigious memory, extensive educational background, and magnificent writing, Anthony was a man of simple, deep, humble, childlike faith. Despite the depth of his theological insights, Anthony’s faith could be boiled down to one wondrous truth: God became human so that humans could live eternally with God. No wonder artists portray Anthony conversing with the Christ Child. His theology revolved around the Incarnation.

Consider this familiar passage from the Gospel of Luke: “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” [Lk 2.6-7] Perhaps we have heard these verses so many times that we no longer ponder them. Anthony not only heard them, but he also pondered them and marveled over what they revealed. He was enraptured by the birth of Christ, the humility of God being born of a simple, poor, young virgin.

She brought forth her son. “The Father gave deity, the mother humanity: the Father gave majesty, the mother weakness.” She brought forth her son, Emmanuel, God-with-us.” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals: Volume IV, pp. 5-6: Messaggero di Sant’Antonio-Editrice)


Meeting of contrasts


Emmanuel, God-with-us. Note how Anthony separates the words in his sermon notes. He wants the friars who preach on the birth of Christ to emphasize each word. God, the all powerful, all wise, all eternal, all loving Being, is with us (that is, in our very midst); we who are weak, ignorant, temporal, and selfish beings. Opposites – humanity and deity, majesty and weakness – are united in Christ because God is his Father and a human being his Mother. How can we possibly not over rejoice?

The humility of God resonates in the words “she wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a manger.”

O poverty! O humility! The Lord of all is wrapped in a scrap of cloth! The King of angels lies down in a stable! Blush, insatiable avarice! Be ashamed, human pride! She wrapped him in cloth. (Sermons IV, p. 6)

Anthony spoke out strongly against the usurers of his time. He was instrumental in getting a law enacted in Padua to protect debtors and keep them from unjust imprisonment (Nugent, p. 325). He rejected avarice in all its forms, and often shared hard hitting words against his society’s pride in the acquisition of possessions, money, and power. God, Who is All Powerful and All Glorious, did not have his Son born in a palace and wrapped in the rich, luxurious brocades and furs. In contrast, God selected a stable and a scrap of cloth.

Unceasingly Anthony marveled at the poverty and humility freely chosen by God.

This shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. [Lk 2.12] Note these two things: humility and poverty… What do the words, You shall find the infant, mean, if not: You will find wisdom babbling, power made weak, majesty laid low, the immense made small, the rich made poor, the Lord of angels lying in a stable, and the Food of angels made like the fodder of animals, the unlimited confined to a narrow manger? This, then will be a sign to you. (Sermons IV, pp. 8-9)


Incredible gift


What other sign do we seek? What other sign would help us understand who God wants to be to us? What other sign would invite us to come close to God without fear and to imitate his self emptying out of love for us? Anthony sees time, both past, present, and future, as converging in one brilliant moment, the birth of the Savior.

“… today, the days are accomplished that she should be delivered. From the fullness of this day, we have all received…”

(Sermons IV, p. 5)

All of Anthony’s meditation, his preaching, his love of God and neighbor, blossomed because of the “fullness of this day.” Well aware of the great gift of the Incarnation and how it changed the world and his own life, Anthony could pray: “To you, O blessed Virgin, be praise and glory, for today we are filled with the goodness of your house, that is, of your womb. We, who were empty before, are full; we who were sick are healthy; we who were cursed are blessed…” (Sermons IV, p. 5)

We indeed are blessed in God made flesh. Merry Christmas!

Updated on October 06 2016