Back in the days of predictive text I came across an insight that blew me away, and was actually a timely reminder that God is literally everywhere. It was Christmas 2010 and the IMF had begun its bailout process. There was huge anxiety across the nation as tens of thousands of jobs were wiped out and we slid into recession. I was trying to prepare a Christmas Day sermon that would somehow be upbeat yet cognisant of new realities. By chance I was texting a friend and inserted the letters IMF! Now predictive text and I have never been friends, its insistence on suggesting the most bizarre options was incredibly frustrating to me. So you can imagine my surprise when ‘IMF’ was not recognised by my phone, instead the letters changed to ‘GOD’! At first I thought I had messed up my spelling however every time I typed ‘IMF’, ‘GOD’ would appear. It was gold for both Christmas sermon illustration and for reminding us that no matter what we are going through God is everywhere!
I had experienced a similar mind-blowing insight some years previously when visiting an elderly parishioner. Joan was a pragmatic person of American origin who had wonderful stories of her experiences in World War II. She had been a ‘land girl’ in England helping on the farms during the war. She needed a driving licence so that she could use the farm machinery and a battered old car that was essential for delivering the farm produce to the nearby barracks. But Joan had a problem; she could never master the three-point turn that would be essential to her passing her test. In typical Joan fashion, she struck on a plan that would solve her dilemma. She ‘borrowed’ three dozen eggs and placed them in the back seat of the car, and then she drove to the test centre. On greeting the driving examiner, she casually mentioned, by way of apology that she had to deliver these fragile eggs to the barracks after the test. The examiner fell for it; ‘Well since it’s for the war effort, we’d better not risk the eggs by doing a three-point turn!’
After enjoying her retelling of the story, she made a passing reference to having her fingers crossed about something or other. ‘Joan’, I challenged, ‘ I didn’t know you were superstitious!’ ‘That’s not superstition’, she retorted ‘don’t you know the origins of ‘fingers crossed?’ She then proceeded to tell me something she had learned at Sunday school many years before.
‘In the years after Jesus died and rose again the church began to grow rapidly with literally thousands joining this new sect. Soon, such growth was met with fear and alarm from those in authority and then with persecution. As the newly called Christians began to spread out across the known world, they needed to find safe ways to identify other Christians and where they were meeting. As the brutal persecution grew, such precautions became vital. The early Church adopted the sign of the fish as their ‘secret symbol’. A simple fish shape would be etched in the dust and clay outside the house where they were meeting. Passers by would have no idea of the significance of the symbol, but fleeing Christians would. Inside they would find fellowship, friendship and hope. But why did they choose the image of the fish? Partly because of when Jesus told his new disciples that he would make them ‘fishers of men’, but mostly because the first letters of the Greek phrase, ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God’ made the word – ‘ICTHUS’ – which means fish.
When Christians met people they thought might share their faith, they would cross their index and middle finger, if the other returned the signal they would both know that it was safe to talk about Jesus. And why did they use the ‘crossing of fingers’? Well, look at your right hand, cross your fingers and turn your hand left wards and you will see that the entwined fingers actually make the shape of a fish.’
It was the simplicity and profundity of this insight that blew me away. From a supposed superstition to a powerful image of hope, it reminded me of how much of our everyday language has its foundations in Christian thought and imagery. Joan also told me that ‘touch wood’ had similar Christian origins. In the very early days of the new church, the cross on which Jesus died was broken into many pieces which were carried by those fleeing persecution. Touching wood was a reminder of what Jesus had done for them and for us, it was not a superstitious action as it is now, it was a source of comfort and faith. No matter how dark and dangerous the day might be, these symbols remind us of deeper truths, they help us Hope.