February 15, 2009


Reading the Signs: a review of Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols by Mike Aquilina (David Mills, Inside Catholic)

Take, for example, the fish, a symbol taken from both the Old and New Testaments and from nature. It was the most common symbol in the early Church, as far as we can tell from archaeology. Everyone knows that the first letters of the words "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" made up the Greek word ichthys, or fish. But Aquilina argues that the fish was a visual symbol before someone thought of using the word as a way of memorizing Jesus' titles.

Jewish Christians, for example, would remember the use of fish to symbolize God's people in the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk. Ezekiel talks of "very many fish" of "many kinds" in a river, with fisherman standing on the banks. These Christians saw themselves as the fish and the Church as the river. The fishermen symbolized the apostles and their successors the bishops, who were, as Jesus said, "fishers of men."

Some saw themselves as fish because fish are born in water, as we are reborn in baptism, and fish die when taken from the water, as we die outside the Church. People who regularly saw fish suffocating on the dock would know what life outside the Church would mean.

It was a symbol capable of elaboration. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose of Milan urged Christians to imitate the fish because even when "the storm rages, the winds howl, the fish swims, it does not sink, because it is wont to swim." The world "has many billows, heavy waves, fierce storms," he says. "Be a fish, so that the waves of the world do not sink you." Faithfulness, courage, obedience, perseverance ought to be as natural to us as swimming is to the fish, because unless we live like that, we will drown.

The fish was also a useful symbol at a time when marking yourself as a Christian could get you fed to the lions. For a time, it was one of the key words in the Christians' secret code. One tombstone Aquilina mentions called the Christians the "divine race of the heavenly fish," a name that would mean nothing to the outsider.

But for the early Christians, the fish was even more important as a symbol of the Eucharist. In the sixth chapter of his Gospel, John tells how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes before giving His Bread of Life discourse, and then at the end of the Gospel tells how the resurrected Jesus prepared the same meal for His disciples.

The early Christians naturally saw Jesus' miraculous provision of food to hungry men, and indeed more food than anyone could eat, as a symbol of the Eucharist. Some early pictures of the Last Supper actually show a fish meal instead of the Passover supper. The fish declared the radical claim that, by participating in this ceremony, they were actually receiving the Son of God.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2009 6:56 AM
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