It's more than a tale about Lenten fish fries
Christian affinity to fish could be puzzling
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Why eat fish during Lent?
It's an obvious question as we enter the penitential season. Giving up meat -- rich, juicy and full of tasty fats -- is a form of abstinence that unites us to Christ in His sufferings.
However, our Christian links to fish go deeper than just serving as a substitute source of protein.
The fish symbol is a form of secret code. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that one of the church Fathers, Clement, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 215) recommended that Christians use either doves or fish as identifying symbols.
Legend says that, during the persecution of early Christians, it wasn't safe to broadcast one's religious affiliation to strangers. So Christians used the sign of a fish to identify themselves to each other. While they didn't have cars or address labels on which to put the simple double-intersecting line symbol, they drew it on their houses or painted it on walls. It is one of the most common symbols in the Roman catacombs, dating to the third century. In fact, it is probably the most ancient Christian symbol, since the now-common cross was not used often until later. (One reason was that crucifixion was still common, so early representations of the cross were hidden in other symbols like anchors.)
But why use a fish as a symbol of Christ?
Puzzle fans will love the answer. The fish is what's called an acrostic -- a word made from letters of several other words. Early Christians had many favorite titles for Jesus -- Shepherd, Lord, Christ.
One of these titles also served as a primitive creed, expressing the Christian faith: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." In Greek, the written language of early Christians, this becomes "Iesous Christos, Theou Hyios, Soter." The first letters from this phrase -- I. Ch. T. Hy. S. -- spell out the Greek word, Ichthys. In Greek, it is IcqUC.
Sometimes the letters themselves were used, at other times, only the fish symbol -- but they represented this creed.
The fish itself -- when used without letters it is also a rebus, a picture-word -- served as a great teaching tool as well. It reminded people of the miracles of Jesus, such as the multiplication of the loaves and fish (mentioned in all four Gospels) and the miraculous catch that drew Peter to his side (Lk 5). The fish also symbolized the baptism in the waters of new life.
An early church writer, Tertullian, around the year 200 wrote about fish to explain the necessity of baptism: "But we, little fishes, after the example of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water... " (On Baptism, chap. 1).
So we can see that early Christians used fish not only to identify Jesus, but also to identify themselves as his disciples. As little fish, they hoped to follow where Jesus had gone, caught up in the Good News. This is part of the interpretation of the Gospel readings of the miraculous catch and the first apostles being called "fishers of men" (Lk 5, Mt 4:19 and Din 21). As the late Scripture scholar Fr. Ray Brown, SS, noted of John's reading: "the catch becomes symbolic of missionary success in bringing people into the community of Christ."
Other sacramental significance linked to fish sees them as representing both the Eucharistic meal and the messianic banquet at the end of time.
At the base of the altar of the Church of the Multiplication on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, you can find an ancient and well-known mosaic: a basket of loaves flanked by two fish. This Tabgha mosaic dates to the fourth century and depicts the miracle of the five loaves and two fish. As mentioned, the miracle is recounted by all four evangelists -- Luke 9, Mark 6 (with a second multiplication in Mk 8); Mt 14 and Jn 6. The early Christian interpretation of this miracle as significant to the Eucharistic meal is especially clear from John's gospel -- the last gospel written -- which quickly follows the story of the multiplication with Jesus' teaching on the Bread of Life.
Last of all, there is some indication that real fish were used in the agape meal -- the communal feast that accompanied early Christian gatherings for Eucharist. New Testament expert Jesuit Fr. Daniel Harrington notes that eating fish with bread would have reminded early Christians of the gift of manna and quail during the Exodus.
So eating fish during Lent gives us more than just a substitute for a steak dinner; it serves to remind us of Christ, the Eucharist, our community with each other, and of our own Exodus journey of conversion on the way to the new land of Easter life.
(Sources: The New Jerome Biblical Dictionary; An Introduction to the New Testament; The Catholic Encyclopedia; newadvent.org and ChristianityToday.com)