A word that has always brought with it images of childhood. Memories of living with my mom and dad and older sister, later my younger sister…on a boat in the islands on the southern tip of Florida- the Keys.
Memories of summers lived in a bathing suit. Swimming in the ocean, then the local pool till my yellow hair turned green from the chlorine. My sister and I paddled a retired windsurf board of my father’s around the “lake” in search of the “mushroom” and the creatures that lived beneath it. My sister and I climbed mangrove trees, discovered secret worlds by taking hidden trails around the property closest to our docked boat.
Our father took us out on his handmade row boats, with the past months’ construction of them fresh in our minds. On weekends the whole family and sometimes just the three of us got the treat of sailing with our father, learning nautical terms like jib and jive. I often caught jellyfish and kept them in buckets, and many times captured enough sea flora and fauna to recreate the ocean scene we knew so well in our own homemade aquariums.
The word “fish” took on even more meaning when a close family friend often cruised past our docked boat on his way to go sailing. He always saw us in the water out near the anchor-line. Because of this he referred to us- the three girls as “fish”. My father took it one step further by calling us each big (Meredith), middle (me), and little (Zoe) fish.
But for the church, especially the ancient one, the fish is an important symbol. It litters archaeological relics, mosaics, frescoes, and other items. A symbol like it has not been found, the cross alone triumphs over the fish.
The fish meant Jesus Christ. In the early church, Greek was dominant and the phrase, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spelled out the acronym ICHTHYS, the Greek word for fish. The fish is also a simple creed of the 2nd century, declaring Jesus’ divinity and his identity as the Christ.
But fish may have been a favorite of these early folks before the acronym was discovered. Fish are found throughout scriptures and baptism generally evokes images of fish. Matthew includes the story where Jesus calls his disciples to be fishers of men. To identify with Christ is to be a fish. According to one site,THE fish is Jesus, and the fish is also the individual believer.
Writing in North Africa around A.D. 198, the Christian theologian Tertullian explained: “We little fishes, after the example of our fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water. Nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water” (On Baptism, 1). Though he writes in Latin, Tertullian shifts to the Greek word ichthys when he describes Jesus. Surely he wants his hearers to think of the acrostic “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” which was by then firmly established in Christian culture. He writes in Latin, yet shifts to Greek to refer to Jesus as Icthys.
In Habbakuk we find, “You have made man like the fish of the sea” (Hb 1:14).
According to the Babylonian Talmud, “Men are compared with fishes, because just as fishes of the sea die at once when they come up on dry land [with few exceptions; i.e. snakemouth], so does man also die as soon as he abandons the Torah and the precepts” (Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah, 3b).
A Christian separated from the Church, like a Jew apart from the Torah, is a creature out of his element—a fish out of water—condemned to spiritual death.
With all this said, being born in water has special relevance to me as a Keys native and as a Christian. In this parallel situation, my life finds further meaning.
During my childhood I did not know Christ or his goodness. I experienced the majesty of God nearly every day as I explored my watery home, but never did I know who had created it. At eleven years old, I was taken from my boat home to live on land for the first time. Here, I experienced a dryness of life that spurred me on towards a search for vitality and deeper hydration. Throughout the next years, away from my first and favorite home, I hungered and thirsted after something that would fill me. I was a fish out of water.
The church welcomed me when I was fifteen. It became a sort of aquarium for me to experience a fullness of life I had not known for several years. In fact, the depth of newness I experienced was enough for me to commit my life to Christ nearly a year later. I would love to share more of that story soon.
A lot of my information about the history of the fish came from: Catholic Answers, “The Divinity of Christ” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2001). Didn’t want you to think I’m some kind of mad history buff.