Friday, June 22, 2007


Here are some numbers to crunch.

12, as was mentioned before, is the number that represents the whole Church. There were the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Twelve Disciples from whence we all came. When used it usually means all of us who are gathered to Christ in His Church.

13 is symbolic faithlessness and betrayal. At the Last Supper there were thirteen people. The thirteenth person was Judas who betrayed Jesus with a kiss.

40 denotes a period of probation or trial. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days, Noah withstood 40 days and 40 nights of rain, Christ spent 40 days in the wilderness and Lent lasts 40 days. In Psalm 95 God says, “Forty years I endured that generation. I said, these are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways so I swore in my anger they shall not enter into my rest.”

100 when used symbolically means plenty while one thousand means beyond numbering. It is like Carl Sagan describing the number of stars in the known universe. He was want to say, “There are billions and billions.” To get a similar point across Scripture uses the number 1,000.

Now here is where things start to get interesting. N.B. – What follows is not definitive interpretations of Scripture but rather one way of seeing the numbers used in Scripture and ritual in a symbolic fashion.


The Kyrie in the old mass was said in three sets of three. The Kyries, three Christes, and then three Kyries again. Three is a perfection number. Repeating the three three times repeats our plea for mercy in a symbolically perfect way. It is our perfect cry for mercy.

For a service I attended in a Byzantine parish they repeated, “Lord have mercy” 40 times in the cry for mercy.

666 is associated with the Devil. One of the definitions of 6 is frustrated perfection or imperfection. So imperfection is repeated three times, or is perfect frustration or evil personified.

Christ calls us to forgive 70 times 7 times. 7 is a perfection number, the number put to Christ as the number of times one should forgive. Jesus was not satisfied. He multiplied their perfection number by a commandment number (10) and then multiplied that by a perfection number again! “I’m serious guys, I want you to forgive perfectly and always as your heavenly Father does!”

In Revelations Chapter 7 it talks about the 144,000 who had been marked with the seal. Many of our Fundamentalist brothers and sisters take this number quite literally. But there is at least one other way of interpreting this number. Remember twelve is a number that signifies the whole Church. If you want to get across the idea that the mark of salvation is for all those who are loyal to he Lamb, you could take twelve and multiply it by twelve, which gives you 144. But to really get across the idea of the seal marking the great multitude of the faithful, you could multiply this by a number that means beyond counting, the number 1,000 which gives you 144,000 or the whole faithful Church.


One, showing our unity, is more recently expressed in that modern church buildings should have only one altar. It is not unusual for older church buildings, particularly those built before Vatican II, to have multiple altars, usually a Marian altar to the left of the main altar and one to Joseph to the right. There is no mandate to remove these “extra” altars in older Churches. In fact, we are called upon to preserve them particularly if they are intrinsic to the design of the building. But new buildings should have one altar around which the community gathers.

Additionally there should be one baptismal fount showing our common baptism, one tabernacle, and pulpit from which all the readings are proclaimed. These all help emphasize the one Body of Christ of which we are all members.

Two becomes relevant especially when bringing to light the dual reality of what is taking place in this space: the worldly and the spiritual. As mentioned before, this may be seen in the combination of circles and squares.

Three signifying the Trinity might be incorporated into the style of a building, for example, by having three main doors with a sing arch stretching over them. Three persons in one God.

I once saw a tester made of stained glass in a sanctuary that had three doves connected together in a circle. They represented the four books of Gospel proclaimed at the mass.

For major celebrations we are traditionally called to have six candles. Remember that six can also be a perfection number and in this way would signify a perfect round of prayer.

Eight, if you remember, is the number of the resurrection. If you’ll notice the baptistery, which is to the right of the Cathedral of Saint John, has eight sides to it. Often the fount itself (at least they used to) will have eight sides.

Churches often have 12 pillars. These signify the Church, all those gathered to celebrate the mass. In fact, there is a parish in the diocese whose 12 pillars further symbolize all the people of the Church by being of different colors which represent the different the different skin tones of humanity.


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