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Excerpted from Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, August 4, 2013,”In Focus: Go Figure! Sacred Numbers play a large role in the Bible” by Carl Olson
–“While the Bible contains little, if anything, that can be described as ‘mathematical,’ it is filled with numbers. Lots of them. Why, it even has a book titled ‘Numbers”! While the countless-pun intended-numbers in Scripture aren’t used in math equations, they provide a wealth of historical, literary and theological meaning. Many ancient cultures believed that certain numbers had specific sacred properties…
Which is the greatest of all the Commandments? Matt 12:28-31: “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. & You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and the three are of one accord.” 1 John 5:7-8.“That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor. 6:11
In Scripture, the number four often indicates universality and creation, as in the four directions- north, south, east, west, the four winds (Jeremiah 49:36). The 4 Gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Catechism consists of four parts: the Profession of Faith, the Celebration of the Christian Mystery, Life in Christ, and Christian Prayer, especially the “Our Father.”
There are the famous five loaves (Matt 14:17, which in turn miraculously fed 5,000. The parable of the five foolish and five wise virgins (Matt 25:1-13) and St Paul’s statement that “in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue,” (1 Cor 14:18-19).
Six is the number of man, for creation took six days, and man- male and female-was created on the final day (Gen 1:24-31). There are six principal attributes of God (power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy and justice). Jesus suffered on the Cross for 6 hours.
Of particular apocalyptic intrigue is, “Wisdom is needed here; one who understands can calculate the number of the beast, for it is a number that stands for a person. His number is six hundred and sixty six” (Rev 13:18). The Navarre Commentary states, “The author of the Apocalypse here uses a method (called gematria in Greek) to reveal the name of the beast in a numerical form. In both Hebrew and Latin, letters of the alphabet were also used as numbers. The figure 666 fits with the name Caesar Nero in Hebrew. Some manuscripts gave the number as 616, which fits Ceasar Nero in Greek. However, Tradition does not provide an exact interpretation and various other names have in fact been suggested.”
Of all numbers in Scripture, seven has a consistent and clear meaning, representing completeness, fullness and perfection. In the Gospels, the most famous reference to seven relates to forgiveness. Peter asks how many times he should forgive a brother who has sinned against him-As many as seven times?-and Jesus responds: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Matt 18:21-22). There are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2). The gospel of John contains seven signs (Jn 2:11, 2:18-19, 4:54, 6:2, 6:14,26; 9:16,12:18, which are just some of the “many other signs” Jesus performed (Jn 20:30). The creation story is in Gen 2:1-3.
The number eight has no symbolic or mystical meaning in Scripture, but in the early Church it began to take on a deeper meaning in light of the Resurrection. The Scripture and patristic scholar, Cardinal jean Danielou, S.J., in his book “The Bible and Liturgy” (University of Notre Dame), examined the origin and meaning of the ‘the eighth day’ in great detail. He notes that since the Jewish Sabbath, on Saturday, was considered the seventh day, it followed that when the Christians began to worship on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, it would gain such a title. The symbolism of this day developed over time, at first it was meant primarily to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, but it eventually took on a deeper theological foc
Much like the number seven, the number 10 symbolizes perfection, especially within the divine order. After sending 10 plagues upon Egypt (Ex 7:14-11:10), and liberating the Hebrews from 400 years of slavery, God gave Moses the Law and the ’10 words,’ or Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17).
Twelve and multiples of 12 (24 and 144,000) have special reference to the people of God, as in the 12 tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles, who represent the Church (Matt 19:28, Jas 1:1). The Book of Revelation depicts 24 elders sitting on ‘twenty-four other thrones’ in the heavenly throne room (Rv 4), and describes the city of the New Jerusalem as having 12 gates (made of 12 pearls flanked by 12 angels) and 12 foundations, with each wall being 12,000 stadia in length (Rv 21:12-21). And how can we forget that the young Jesus was 12 years old when he stayed in the Temple for three days conversing with the teachers of the Law (Lk 2:41-52)?
Forty is associated with testing, trial and judgment. Noah spent 40 days in the ark during the Flood (Gn 7:12, 8:6), and the Israelites, having been freed from slavery, ‘ate the manna forty years’ (Ex 16:35). Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:18). The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert after worshipping a golden calf (Ps 95:10). After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and disciples during a 40 day period before the Ascension (Acts 1:1-9).
The feast of Pentecost (from the Greek word for ‘fiftieth’), which the Israelites called the ‘feast of weeks,’ a reference to the seven weeks from the Passover to the celebration of Pentecost (Lv 23:9-21). For Christians, Pentecost marks the fruits and harvest of another sort. It is a celebration of a formative event in the history of the early Church-the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the newly birthed Church and the first bold proclamation of the Gospel by Peter among the Jews (Acts 2).
One thousand, as in the millenium (Rv 20:1-7), indicates both fullness and quantity, not an exact number of years. For example, ‘the cattle on a thousand hills’ (Ps 50:10) refers to all cattle, not just a limited amount. In sum, in Scripture, a ‘thousand’ means a big, big number! “
Not an exhaustive treatment by any means, for more insights read Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine,” in which he said, “Ignorance of numbers, too, prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.” For example, “A candid mind, if I may so speak, cannot but be anxious, to ascertain what is meant by the fact that Moses and Elijah, and our Lord Himself, all fasted for 40 days.” It can be found online.
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Why I think St Paul said the Cross is considered foolishness and a stumbling block. (1 Cor 1:23)
From the aversion to Christianity and religion generally, it’s pretty obvious the Cross is considered an outdated symbol. But what about those who say that despite carrying ‘many crosses’ they feel only Joy? That’s my experience.
After reflection, the “mystery of the Cross” came to mind. Why is the Cross and those who embrace it considered foolish? Modern thought such as secular humanism and positivism push out the Cross, but I have three theories also.
First and foremost, man turns away from the Cross’ because of its contradictions. There is no neutral position in regards to the Cross, man initially looks upon it and either fully embraces it or turns away. No fudging. Why? I think the Cross is ‘discretely intrusive,’ in that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman. He is not going to force anyone to accept His Cross. But when I do so and repent, I experience His fruits of peace and joy.
Second, bad witness. The tragedy of the prosperity gospel is that it looks at the Cross once, then skips past the holy beams to indulge in so called ‘promises’ that one will be wealthy for following Christ. ‘Just dessert please, no trials.’ No wonder people think Christians are phony materialists just like the rest of the world.
Third, Christian conversion is not a static, one-time event. The Cross comes down into my world to weave itself into my daily choices, emotions and acts. But I must allow it in my soul. More often than not, I must reject taking hold of the proverbial, prosperous ‘it’, whatever the ‘it’ happens to be at the moment- be it money, healing, property, leisure, recreation, in exchange for something greater than myself- a cause for social justice, someone’s feelings, a desperate single parent, the child in the womb.
Fourth, “Cross” is not a fun, prosperous sounding word. In ‘fear’ I contemplate the Cross’ narrow way with its Sorrowful mysteries, the shouts and terrible pain Jesus endured in His Cross on my behalf. Then I experience a clean heart, with ‘trembling’ gratitude and awe, the comforting moment with His mother on the Way and the Glorious mysteries of the Resurrection.
A practical footnote: For its configuration of a Cross surrounded by beautiful beads, the rosary mingles the Son of Man’s Sorrows with man’s Good News, which instills a sober but joyful mindset fixated on the beautiful things above, the things that really count. It is a relief that it’s not about me anymore.
Name it and claim it? No thanks, I’ll take the Cross…..
I’ve been thinking about Congress’ debates about Syria and the obvious comparisons to the similar, dreadful national conversation about the problem of evil following 9/11. It appears that not only have we not solved the problem of evil, but the world has become a more dangerous place in the last 13 years. When I was in the library earlier today, I came across another collection of reflections on 9/11 by Bill Moyer. In “The 11th of September,” Moyer interviews Tamim Ansary, an Afghan American. Tho his insights apply to the aftermath of 9/11, Ansary’s thoughts shed light on misconceptions about peoples in the Middle East, especially those who are oppressed by Islamic regimes. His wisdom enlightens and describes unsettling, possible repercussions of invading Afghanistan. Things have certainly not improved there. I interpret his message in a generic sense in that a conflict with Syria could bring to bear similar consequences of these natures. In other words, ‘live by the sword, die by the sword.’ And in terms of Just War theory, we must try other non violent measures first. I just pray for our leaders and our world.
Tamim Ansary Letter on Afghanistan
“I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about ‘bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age.’ Ronn Owens, on KGO Talk Radio today, conceded that this would mean killing innocent people, people who had nothing to do with this atrocity, but ‘we’re at war, we have to accept collateral damage. What else can we do?’ Minutes later I heard some TV pundit discussing whether we ‘have the belly to do what must be done.’
And I thought about the issues being raised especially hard because I am from Afghanistan, and even though I’ve lived here for 35 years I’ve never lost track of what’s going on there. So I want to tell anyone who will listen how it all looks from where I’m standing.
I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. There is no doubt in my mind that these people were responsible for the atrocity in New York. I agree that something must be done about those monsters.
But the Taliban and Bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They’re not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think Bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think ‘the people of Afghanistan’ think ‘the Jews in the concentration camps.’
It’s not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators. They would exult if someone would come in there, take out the Taliban and clear out the rats nest of international thugs holed up in their country.
Some say, why don’t the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, they’re starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering. A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan-a country with no economy, no food.
There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets. These are a few of the reasons why the Afghan people have not overthrown the Taliban.
We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that.
New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely. In today’s Afghanistan, only the Taliban eat, only they have the means to move around. They’d slip away and hide. Maybe the bombs would get some of those disabled orphans, they don’t move too fast, they don’t even have wheelchairs. But flying over Kabul and dropping bombs wouldn’t really be a strike against the criminals who did this horrific thing. Actually it would only be making common cause with the Taliban-by raping once again the people they’ve been raping all this time.
So what else is there? What can be done, then? Let me now speak with true fear and trembling. The only way to get Bin Laden is to go in there with ground troops. When people speak of ‘having the belly to do what needs to be done’ they’re thinking in terms of having the belly to kill as many as needed. Having the belly to overcome any moral qualms about killing innocent people. Let’s pull our heads out of the sand. What’s actually on the table is Americans dying. And not just because some Americans would die fighting their way through Afghanistan to Bin Laden’s hideout. It’s much bigger than that folks. Because to get any troops to Afghanistan, we’d have to go through Pakistan. Would they let us? Not likely. The conquest of Pakistan would have to be first. Will other Muslim nations just stand by? You see where I’m going. We’re flirting with a world war between Islam and the West.
And guess what: that’s Bin Laden’s program. That’s exactly what he wants. That’s why he did this. Read his speeches and statements. It’s all right there. He really believes Islam would beat the West. It might seem ridiculous, but he figures if he can polarize the world into Islam and the West, he’s got a billion soldiers. If the West wreaks a holocaust in those lands, that’s a billion people with nothing left to lose, that’s even better from Bin Laden’s point of view. He’s probably wrong, in the end the West would win, whatever that would mean, but the war would last for years and millions would die, not just theirs but ours. Who has the belly for that? Bin Laden does. Anyone else?”