If there is a universal symbol of Christianity today it is undoubtedly the cross. But in the first three hundred years of the church it was the fish.
The fish symbol was particularly significant during outbreaks of persecution. Because it had been used by pagans it aroused little suspicion. Christians would mark the symbol on meeting places to indicate their presence and on tombs to mark the faith of the person who had died. It is also reported that when a Christian was on the road and came across a stranger, the Christian would draw an arc in the sand. This was one half of the fish symbol. If the stranger drew the other half both travellers knew they were believers.
The symbol appears to have been adopted due to the fact that in Greek the letters making up the word “fish” formed an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. This was a tremendously dangerous thing to claim, for the Roman Emperor was worshipped using exactly the same language, presenting himself and his Empire as the path to peace. By proclaiming Jesus as Son of God and Saviour the early Christians rejected the Emperor’s claim. The king they followed represented a radically different vision and set of values. They sought a kingdom based on worship of the God revealed by Jesus, not a multiplicity of Roman gods; service rather than violence; love rather than force; embrace of the marginalised rather than the privileging of Roman citizens; care for the poor rather than their neglect. They knew that their Lord had been crucified on a Roman cross, but rather than signalling the triumph of Rome over Christ, the resurrection signalled the triumph of Christ and his way.
When a Christian of old drew that arc in the sand, she was making a statement: I follow Jesus and seek first his kingdom, not Caesar and his.
I want to do the same. I want to keep hold of that revolutionary fervour, that commitment to a kingdom marked by love, grace, inclusion and justice; the unashamed worship of the God of Jesus; the practice of a new way of living that is prepared to go up against the values of the age; the devotion to the poor, exploited and oppressed in the name of King Jesus.
I want to draw an arc in the sand. What about you?
This Easter, why not give something more meaningful than chocolate and give the gift of fish! You’ll help put out a line and enable groups to be trained in fish raising in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal. This means a new supply of fish for income generation and a lifeline for the family’s diet. There’s nothing fishy about that!