Fish symbol has deep roots

By | February 7, 2013

This weekend’s Gospel is one of the many where fish are part of the story. One might see fish painted in our church windows, carved into sculptures or embroidered on linens. Granted, we Catholics most likely invented the fish fry, but there are far greater reasons the fish is a Christian symbol.

Jesus lived in a land where fishing was the primary industry. Several of Jesus’ apostles were fishermen. There are various miracles Jesus performed where fish were involved, including this weekend’s story of no fish being caught and suddenly, at Jesus’ command, fish overflow the boat.

Jesus used examples of fish in his teaching. When he wanted to convey thoughts on morality, he used the example of one keeping the good fish and throwing away the bad fish.

In the early centuries, as the Catholic Church began to grow, its people came under persecution. It was necessary for members to create secret ways of communicating, ways of indicating that each was one of these new Christians. Greeks, Romans and many pagans already used fish symbols. Christians discovered that unlike the symbol of the cross, a fish symbol was going to attract little attention to them, so they simply created a new meaning for the symbol. One of the secret riddles centered on the Greek word for “the fish.” The early Christians took the letters for the Greek word fish (ichthys), and using each letter formed a word to describe Jesus: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, in English, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Christians used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs or to distinguish friends from foes.

It is also agreed that the simple line symbol of a fish that we have come to accept in Christian art is based on the Greek letters of the word fish. These letters are said to look like two intersecting arcs, meeting at point. Over time our “secret” Christian symbol became public and known as the “sign of the fish” or the “Jesus fish.”

Tertullian, one of our early church fathers, when teaching on baptism, would say, “we are little fishes, born in water.” This might be one reason we often see a fish inscribed on a baptismal or holy water font.

Today, Christians in our country do not need to worry about persecution. The fish logo, as a symbol of our Christian faith, endures on bumper stickers, billboards and jewelry, often with the word “Jesus” written inside.

Zahorik is director of worship at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Oshkosh.

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