EUCHARISTIC BELIEF “ICHTHUS” IN THE EPITAPHS OF ABERCIUS
Holy Eucharist, the divine food and drink of immortality
In the sixteenth century the pseudo-Reformers violently disrupted the unity of Christendom and, under the guise of a return to pure Gospel teaching, sealed off from vast masses of Christians the living fountain of eternal life, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and deprived them of the Holy Eucharist, the divine food and drink of immortality. Since that time learned men have diligently inquired what the Christians of early centuries professed regarding the vitally important article of faith of the Catholic Church, the doctrine that under the Eucharistic species of bread and wine there is really, truly, and substantially present the Body and Blood of the Redeemer of mankind, Christ Jesus. The Holy Eucharist is indeed at the very heart of Catholicism; it is truly the hearth of Catholic life and worship; it is the divine spring of heroism and martyrdom, the inexhaustible source of spiritual life and strength that vivifies, strengthens and welds together in one bond of charity the countless masses of faithful dispersed over the world into one body, the Mystical Body of Christ which is the visible Catholic Church.
Unbroken chain of Tradition in the Oneness of Faith
Catholic theologians and historians have kept pace with these inquiries and researches in the field of Christian Antiquity to show the unbroken chain of tradition in the oneness of faith and worship. With the increase in studies in the realm of ancient liturgical and Eucharistic monuments they have shed new light on the oneness of belief in the Holy Eucharist; they have brought to light new works of ancient Christian writers hitherto unknown; they have unearthed fresh evidence in confirmation of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine. Much of this evidence deals with archaeological discoveries pertinent to Christian life and worship of the early centuries.
Eucharist – is “Source & Summit of the Christian Life #1324
For down through the centuries the faithful have ever held the same sacred belief that Christ, Son of God and Son of Virgin Mary, is verily, really and substantially present in the Eucharist. True, the liturgical rites and practices differed as to their external ceremonies in not a few localities and churches, but the dogma of the Blessed Eucharist had always remained one and the same for all these centuries. The Christians of old showed no less faith, no less piety, no less fervor than the faithful of our day toward the Holy Eucharist.
The early Christians have bequeathed to posterity monuments of their faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist that speak a language entirely their own; they are in form of inscriptions, epitaphs, paintings and sculpture. Of all the ancient Christian inscriptions bearing on the Holy Eucharist none are perhaps more eloquent than the <Epitaph of Abercius> and the <Inscription of Pectorius>, both discovered in the last century. In the pages that follow we will present a brief history of these two epitaphs, a free translation of the original texts, and explain their Eucharistic message.
The following is the text of the Epitaph of Abercius in a free translation
1 The citizen of an eminent city, this monument I made 2 whilst still living, that there I might have in time a resting place for my body. 3 My name is Abercius, the disciple of the holy shepherd 4 who feeds his flocks of sheep on the mountains and in the plains, 5 who has great eyes that see everywhere. 6 This shepherd taught me the Book worthy of belief. 7 It is he who sent me to Rome to behold the royal majesty 8 and to see the queen arrayed in golden vestments and golden sandals. 9 There also I saw the people famous for their seal. 10 And I saw the plains of Syria and all its cities, and also Nisibis 11 when I crossed the Euphrates. Everywhere I met brethren in agreement, 12 having Paul [as my companion]. Everywhere faith was my guide 13 and everywhere provided as my food the Fish 14 of exceeding great size and pure whom the spotless virgin caught from the spring. 15 And faith ever gives this food to his disciples to eat, 16 having the choicest wine and administering the mixed drink with bread. 17 I, Abercius, standing by, ordered these words to be inscribed, 18 being in the course of my seventy second year. 19 Let him who understands these words and believes the same pray for Abercius. 20 No one shall place another tomb over my grave; 21 but if he do so, he shall pay to the treasury of the Romans two thousand pieces of gold 22 and to my beloved native city Hieropolis, one thousand pieces of gold.
DISCIPLINE of the SECRET MYSTERY
In keeping with the Discipline of the Secret, the Epitaph of Abercius is crowded with information on matters of faith and religious practice enshrined in mystical and symbolical terms that were readily understood by the baptized, but remained unintelligible to the average pagan reader. As a rule the early Christians were never wont to divulge to the heathen public the great mysteries of faith, particularly what concerned the sacraments of Christian initiation, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the contents of the Creed, etc. Discourses on such subjects were reserved for the illuminated, that is, those who received the sacrament of Baptism. This practice continued for several centuries. Thus St. Cyril of Jerusalem, addressing the “<competentes,>” says: “Now when the catechizing has taken place, should a catechumen ask what the teachers have said, tell nothing to a stranger; for we deliver to thee a mystery, even the hope of life to come: keep the mystery for Him who pays thee…. See thou let out nothing; not that the things spoken do not deserve telling, but the ear that hears does not deserve receiving.”  Origen, the great master of the Alexandrian School, remarks: “Those who are initiated understand these things.“  Abercius himself purposely dictated his inscription in such wise that only his co-religionists understood its meaning: “Let him who understands these words and believes the same pray for Abercius” (v. 19); in other words, not all understand the meaning of the inscription, but fellow-believers do; for them it is meet to pray or the dead.
In the light of the foregoing, the Eucharistic message of the Epitaph of Abercius is clear. The holy shepherd, of whom Abercius calls himself a disciple, is none other than Christ, the Good Shepherd. He has sent him on a mission to Rome to see the Church, “the queen arrayed in golden vestments and golden sandals,” famous for its faith and for its founders. Faith was his guide on his journeys to the many Christian communities; everywhere he went, he met those who professed the same belief. The food which his co-believers offered him everywhere was not the ordinary food, but the Eucharistic food under the species of bread and wine. Abercius describes this food with one word: it is ‘ichthus’, literally meaning <fish>, but to the early Christians it meant Christ Himself: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior- the meaning of the acrostic ‘ICHTHUS’. The fish was the symbol of Christ and of the Eucharistic banquet: Christ is the “‘ichthus’ of exceeding great size and pure whom the spotless virgin brought forth from a spring” (v. 14). The faithful on their part are, in the language of Tertullian, “little fishes”: “Nos pisciculi secundum ‘ichthun‘ nostrum Jesum Christum in aqua nascimur.” The spotless Virgin who caught the Fish from the spring is, according to the symbolism of the time, the Virgin Mary who conceived the Savior. The Eucharistic food, then, is Christ Himself, the great and pure ‘ICHTHUS’: which is given only to the initiated and is administered under both species of bread and wine – the Body and Blood of Our Savior: “administering the mixed drink with bread” (v. 16). The “mixed drink” (Gr.: ‘kerhasma’) doubtless refers to the cup of wine mixed (tempered) with water; together with bread it constitutes the Eucharistic <oblata.>[10
Source: http://www.ewtn.com/library/SOURCES/EPITAPHS.TXT cityofGod.blog Last Updated 01/ 07/2019