The ‘Jesus Fish’ symbol

25 July 2021 17th Sunday Year B

We’ve seen them on car bumper-bars, keychains, lapel pins, and pendants. Users of online discussion boards and chat rooms find innovative ways to employ them in posts. They are the so-called “Jesus Fish”, a symbol comprising two intersecting arcs; or, in the case of online chat rooms, formed by the astute use of the “greater than” and “less than” symbols (<><).

The “Jesus Fish” phenomenon purports to be a revival of an early Christian symbol representing Christ. The fish symbol gained early popularity amongst Christians because the Greek word for fish “ICHTHUS” could be used as an acrostic for the proclamation of their faith in “Jesus Christ, Son of God, [and] Saviour” (Iesous CHristos THeou Uios Soter). Long before the cross, early Christian worshippers used the fish as the public sign of their faith.

Many of these early fish symbols were closely related to the Christian practice of shared meals. So, for example, the second-century “Greek chapel” in the Roman catacombs of Saint Priscilla boasts a fresco depicting the eucharistic table set with a fish and a basket of bread.

This fresco is reminiscent of the scene presented in today’s gospel, where Jesus feeds a large crowd of five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. Like the fresco, the story has clear eucharistic overtones as Jesus blesses, breaks the bread and distributes it in manner reminiscent of the story of the Last Supper. The miracle of loaves echoes the story in today’s first reading where Elijah feeds a hundred people by a similarly miraculous division of meagre resources.

Jesus’ audience would have been aware of the Elijah story and of the role of Elijah assumed in popular Jewish thinking about the end-time. Hence, Jesus’ actions prompt them to identify him as the messianic prophet, the coming of whom was foretold by Malachi, who specifically linked the messiah to the return of Elijah (Malachi 3:23).

In Jewish thought, fish appear in the end-time drama as symbolic of God’s blessing on a renewed Israel (Ezekiel 47:9). The prophet Ezekiel predicted that a stream would flow from the temple mount in Jerusalem and would purify the Dead Sea so that fish would teem there. An abundant catch of fish figures strongly in John’s post-resurrection story of the risen Jesus appearing to seven of his disciples as they fished the Sea of Tiberius (John 21:1-14). In Luke’s Gospel, the risen Jesus eats a piece of broiled fish to demonstrate that he is no mere ghost (Luke 24:42).

Pulling all these threads together, one can see how easily the “Jesus Fish” came to be adopted as an early symbol for Christian faith. For us too, the presence of the fish in the gospel story of the miracle of the loaves reminds us that each time we gather as a eucharistic community to ponder the Word and break bread we are publicly witnessing to our faith that Jesus is the “Son of God” and “saviour” of the world.

Ian J Elmer

© Majellan Media 2021