The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fishin' with Jesus

The Walleye

Third Sunday of Easter
Gospel—Luke 24:35-48

There is something fishy about today’s Gospel—literally. At one point, the Resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and asks them for something to eat. They give him a piece of baked fish, we are told in Luke 24:42, and Jesus proceeds to eat it in front of them.

It seems to be a strange detail. After all, a lot was going on at the time. Who can eat at a time like this? Besides, Lent is over—why not a big hunk of beef? (OK, I might be projecting a bit on that last point; we get plenty of fish around here, but not a whole lot of Grade-A red meat.)

But I digress…

Jesus was simply trying to reassure his disciples, who were “startled and terrified” when he appeared to them. Who wouldn’t be? But Jesus is no ghost. He is real. He brings peace, is peace. “Why are you troubled? he asks. “It is I myself…touch me and see.” Then, to show them beyond any doubt that while he has risen from the dead, he is no ghost, he asks for something to eat and then gobbles up the fish. “See? I’m really here,” he is saying, and then he opens up their minds to understand the Scriptures, and what his dying and rising truly mean. “You are witnesses of these things.”

A modern-day Ichthys
What Jesus tells the disciples was foretold centuries earlier by the prophet Ezekiel (among others), who was shown a vision of the restoration of Jerusalem. He saw a temple with a life-giving river flowing from it:

Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea…It will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea…On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:9-12)

Notice all the references to fish? I’d love to fish that river. I used to do a fair amount of fishing, mostly in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my family has often vacationed in pursuit of the grandest freshwater lake fish there is—the Walleye, or Wally, as we honorary Yoopers affectionately refer to them. Once, by the way, I caught a 24-inch Wally, with the help of my brother, who netted him. My moment in the sun. It didn’t last long. Debating whether or not to pay out the bucks to have it stuffed and mounted (rather than filleted and fried), I tied the prize fish’s stringer to the end of the dock. Later in the afternoon, when we returned in our boats from another outing on the lake, we discovered to our horror a flock of gulls pecking away at my lifeless catch. A decision was no longer necessary…I’ve done a little fishing around here, though not much. A few catfish, some bass, and bluegill, mostly. There are two whoppers of some sort in one of the lakes on campus here, who lazily part the surface of the water like miniature sea monsters, ignoring my vain attempts to lure them into chomping on my baited hook. They’re too smart for that, it seems. Walter and Wilma, I call them. They must each be at least 30 inches long. It’s frustrating to watch them swim along so nonchalantly without any interest in even giving me a shot at landing one of them. I would catch and release—I promise.

But I digress yet again…

Where were we? Oh yes, fish in Scripture. There are a lot of them! What’s the connection with Jesus’ Resurrection—with us? Good question.

Fish (along with bread) are mentioned frequently in the Gospels and are typically associated with Christ in a Eucharistic context. All four Gospels contain various accounts of the multiplication of loaves and fish by Jesus—twice in Mark and Matthew, and once in Luke and John. Fish are also eaten by Jesus and his disciples in the post-resurrection appearances recounted at the end of Luke (as we hear today) and John. Not coincidentally, several of the apostles were fishermen, to whom Jesus called, “I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).

At the end of the Gospel of John (21:1-14), the Resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, who have returned to their fishing boats but without any luck (I’ve had days like that!).

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” Jesus, whom the disciples do not yet recognize, calls from the shore.

“Yeah, rub it in. Thanks a lot, buddy. I suppose you could do better?” The Gospel doesn’t put those words in the disciples’ mouth, but that had to be what they were thinking.

Jesus—again, still unrecognizable, just some dude on shore seemingly making fun of them—tells them to try casting their net to the right of the boat where they are. This time, they get more than they bargained for, the net so full of fish that it is difficult to bring in. Finally, they recognize Jesus, and come ashore to find him tending a fire with fish and bread baking over it. “Bring some of the fish you just caught,” he tells them. They are large fish, and there were many, we are told, but the net did not tear. Then they all have breakfast together.

Clearly, this is a Eucharistic account of our inheritance with the Risen Christ, and the image of the apostles hauling a large amount of fish ashore at Jesus’ instructions—without losing any through a torn net—prefigures the identity and mission of the Church.

Funerary stele of Licinia Amias with Christian motto
in Greek: 'Fish of the living.'

Museo Nazionale Romano
So it is no surprise that fish became a primary symbol for the early Christians, who apparently used it from the beginning, particularly in artwork and funerary slabs, until the Constantinian era, according to the Encyclopedia of the Early Church. “It almost always clearly represents Christ, though sometimes standing for the Christian, and its history can be traced from its appearance in the [early] second century down to the fourth, when it begins gradually to disappear on Christian monuments,” writes C.R. Morey in a 1910 article in the Princeton Theological Review.

The symbol of the fish represented Christ, and signified not only the Eucharist, but Baptism, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and eternal life, and “as the cross denoted the ever-present danger of persecution until the middle of the fourth century, the fish identified individuals as Christians,” writes Diane Apostolos-Cappadonia in the Dictionary of Christian Art.

In this light, its popularity among the early Christians, who sometimes needed to be careful about how they identified themselves, is due to the acrostic formed by the ancient Greek word for fish, ichthys. The word is formed with the initial letters of the five Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter) and the acrostic is recognized as “ΙΧΘΥC”. As such, the acrostic, or the image of a fish, or both, comprised a profession of faith in the divinity of Christ, the Redeemer of mankind, states The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Believers, then, became “little fishes,” sharing in Christ’s Baptism and Resurrection through the Eucharist. Just as a fish cannot live out of water, the Christian cannot live outside of Christ.

These images are often combined in some writings of the early fathers, and particularly in artwork and inscriptions contained within the Roman catacombs. One of the most famous examples of this is from the early Christian writer Tertullian (b.150), who in his treatise On Baptism wrote: “We little fishes are born in water, after the example of our Ichthys Jesus Christ. And we have safety in no other way than by permanently abiding in water.”

This type of representation also appears in the ancient epitaph of Abercius, a second-century bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, which Joannes Quasten, in his four-volume work Patrology, calls “the queen of all ancient Christian inscriptions.” Written in a metaphorical, mystical style common to its day, it is a good text for meditation in any age. In part it reads:

Everywhere faith led the way
And set before me for food the fish from the spring
Mighty and pure, whom a spotless Virgin caught,
And gave this to friends to eat, always
Having sweet wine and giving the mixed cup with bread.

This is the oldest monument of stone mentioning the Eucharist, and as Quasten explains, Abercius is describing a journey on which he shared the Eucharist with fellow Christians: “The fish from the spring, mighty and pure, is Christ, according to the acrostic ΙΧΘΥC. The spotless Virgin who caught the fish is, according to the language of the time, the Virgin Mary, who conceived the Savior.”

May all “little fishes” share in this Resurrection feast!

“Peace be with you.” Nothing at all fishy about that.

Perhaps I’ll go pay Walter and Wilma a visit … Sometimes, it’s good to digress.

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