Migdal and Tiberias, Israel / Palestine
October 7, 2019
But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.
That old chestnut about death and taxes applied even to Jesus. He died on the cross and paid his taxes from the bounty off the Sea of Galilee, not in that order. The money-bearing fish caught by Peter was traditionally thought to be tilapia; ergo, it was honored with the nickname St. Peter’s Fish. The species had thrived in the lake until recently when they had to be farmed.
Our tour’s meal stop was at Christian-owned Tanureen Galilee Restaurant by the picturesque lakeshore. Lunch was served the Galilean way: a plate of St. Peter’s Fish, fleshy and fried with fries on the side. At home, my family shared a fish or two at the dinner table. The full-fish individual serving here was hefty in comparison, which I demolished nonetheless, leaving only the head, tail, and a sorry heap of fish bones. I walked where Jesus walked, I ate what He ate.
The pescatarian meal was a prelude to our visit to Tabgha believed to be the site of the feeding of five thousand with just five loaves and two fish. Tabgha drew both fish and people to its waters. The name was derived from sulfur springs that warmed the Sea of Galilee engendering conditions conducive to aquatic life and, consequently, attracting fishermen, some of whom were called to become disciples of Jesus. It was a place of abundance epitomized by the miracle of God’s provision.
To commemorate the miraculous event, Catholics built the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, first in the early Byzantine era and, most recently, in the mid-1980s. The church building was not grand by any means. Its greatness lay under our feet. Byzantine mosaics of native birds and flowers covered much of the floor area. We were walking on an ancient National Geographic in stone. Water birds depicted therein were indicators of fishing viability in the Sea of Galilee as Peter, the fisherman turned fisher of men, would have attested.
But of course, we all came to see a particular mosaic – the iconic basket of loaves flanked by a pair of fish – at the foot of the altar under which was the alleged rock on which Jesus blessed the loaves and fish that fed the multitude. The altar was cordoned off at quite a distance to the chagrin of my phone cam’s zooming capability.
Reading the biblical context of the miracle in Tabgha revealed Jesus’ state of heart. Prior to performing the aforementioned miracle, He sequestered Himself to a boat to grieve alone for His cousin, John the Baptist, recently beheaded by Herod Antipas. The passage in the Gospels did not elaborate what Jesus taught the crowd. Instead, Jesus gave us a takeaway on loss: that as lonely and personal as grief was, it could find public expression in acts of compassion – of easing and healing other people’s pain and affliction.
In actual accounts or in parables, fish figured in the story of Jesus enough that it had come to symbolize Christianity – the ichthus as a simplified form of the fish mosaic in Tabgha. I partook of the fish as the resurrected Christ did.
And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.