(First, if you aren’t quite sure how to think about Lent, start here)
I like eating. Eating is glorious and it’s at the heart of the Christian life, so I think about it a lot. That being the case, I recently got to thinking about the historical practice of eating fish during Lent and about the possible rationale behind it. Aside from an apocryphal story about a corrupt pope who owned a fishing business, I didn’t find much to satisfy my Protestant curiosity. Still I came to the ultimate conclusion that regardless of one’s particular Lenten practices, we could afford to eat more fish during the season. Let me tell you why.
Some arms of the Church, Romans in particular, have a longstanding tradition of observing the Fridays in Lent as days of particular penance, marked by abstinence from the eating of meat. Historically, fish has served as a popular meat substitute on these days, distinguished from other prohibited meats because the fish is a cold-blooded creature (Lev. 7:26 seems to back this up). Excepting a sometimes-but-seldom-invoked acronymic relationship between the Greek word for fish—ἰχθύς—and the name of Jesus—Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Sotor—the choice of fish, in practice, is mostly arbitrary or pragmatic (it is filling and satisfying like meat). But there better, deeper-rooted reasons to make fish a part of our Lenten diet.
In Scripture, the seas and waters under the earth are commonly a symbol of the gentile nations, and likewise the fish dwelling in them. The rulers of Tyre are called “the princes of the sea” (Ez.26:16), Nebuchadnezzar is pictured as a great sea monster (Jer. 51:34), the nation of Egypt is called a nation of fish and river-dwellers (Ez. 29:4). (for more on this, see Through New Eyes or pretty much anything else Jim Jordan has ever written…ever…probably even his grocery lists). In contrast, Israel is seen as a people of the land, and in the Old Testament the prominent men of God are farmers and keepers of livestock, not fisherman. That changes when Jesus comes calling fishermen into his service. With me so far? Okay, here’s where the ride speeds up.
The forty days of Lent are taken from the forty-day period our Lord spent in the Wilderness after his baptism, which in turn shares a typological relationship with other ”forty” periods in Israel’s (or protoIsrael’s) history—most notably the forty days on the ark after Noah’s flood and the forty years of exile after crossing the Red Sea. These earlier events culminated in further separation from and/or victory over the gentile “nations.” Jesus’ forty days, however, orient Israel in the opposite direction. He comes out of the Wilderness and departs immediately to Galilee of the Gentiles, the first order of business being to recruit experienced fish-catchers. Unlike the conquest of Canaan, Jesus doesn’t slay gentiles and drive them away, but begins drawing them to himself by the net-full.
In fact, after Jesus’ forty days of fasting, the first food mentioned in each of the synoptic gospels is fish. While the first Joshua supplanted the nations and took possession of their land and their vineyards, the final and greater Joshua desires to possess the nations themselves—fish is the sign of the gentile peoples being incorporated into the body of Christ. Throughout the gospels, fish is one of the few foods explicitly named as something Jesus ate, and he is always feeding it to his disciples. Alongside bread it is the food given to the multitudes in all the gospel accounts of miraculous feedings. Jesus not only tells Israel to embrace the nations (to love her enemies and be a light shining before all nations), he has them practicing it through meals of fish. Finally, the Lord’s “feed my sheep” admonition to Peter in Jn. 21 follows immediately on the heels of his preparing a breakfast of fish for his disciples and bidding them “come and eat,” a possible sign that the life and health of the Church will be bound up with the pursuit and inclusion of the gentile nations.
So, how should we then eat? As we—the Church, a mixed multitude—move through this season that appropriately culminates in both Jesus’ calling of the gentiles and his death and resurrection (if you aren’t already thinking about the Sign of Jonah, start now), giving thanks to God that the work of Christ is for all the world, we have a boat load of reasons to have fish on the table. Do my comments and observations translate into a biblical imperative to consume fish? No, of course not.. But, all things considered—whether feast, fast, or famine—I can’t help but find it beautifully appropriate.*
*Unless you’re eating fish sticks, which should only be served to children (as punishment for being picky) or to convicts (as punishment for being convicts).