Numbers, Scripture, Symbols, Signs

One of the signs that came to me in my mid-twenties was the number 14. When I moved away for law school, I was part of the graduating class of 2014[1]. My apartment address in first year was 414-14. My exam number was 4414, and the first exam of my last semester in law school was on April 14, 2014 – or 4-14-14. And when my wife was in the hospital for the birth of our first child, she started pushing at 4:14. Our child was born an hour later.

So the number 14 appeared to me again and again in this way during a time in my life that was full of transformation, and more specifically, rebirth, renewal, the shedding of old skin and coming into a new one[2].

The number 14 to me symbolizes my physical rebirth, as a father, a husband and a lawyer devoted to the service of others. It symbolizes my emotional rebirth, becoming independent when I moved away for law school. It stands for my social and psychological rebirth, emerging from the rather hermitted life I had lead during the latter half of my undergraduate degree and during my graduate degree in Philosophy, which represented a 40 days in the desert of sorts. I had been a Philosophy student finding my way since I had lost my community and international prestige in amateur sport and rowing. I had now “come into my own” and gathered many circles of law students and led a small but passionate group of students who were interested in building dialogue across partisan divisions in Canadian politics, and had created a student group at Osgoode Hall Law School as a platform for engagement, discussion and advocacy on a whole host of issues of public importance. Finally, I was elected law school student president, and in that capacity successfully spearheaded an effort to create linkages between the 70-plus student clubs and bring unity to the diversity of our student groups. Lastly, the appearance and reappearance of the number 14 coincided with my spiritual rebirth, which had taken root when I moved away to law school, characterised by prayer multiple times a day. Independence had a way of deepening my roots and widening my branches on every level.

As St. Augustine wrote, “many numbers and patterns of numbers are placed by way of similitudes in the sacred books as secrets which are often closed to readers because of ignorance of numbers.” So during my time in law school, I researched the scriptures to see what indication I might find given the striking acquaintances I had with the number 14.

I was most struck by the fact that Jesus’ final preparation for his death and resurrection, including the Last Supper, took place on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan (around the 1st of April, or 1/4), which is when the Feast of Passover is celebrated. It was on this day that Jesus made those final preparations for his hour of death in distress, anguish[3] and sorrow[4], to make true what scripture had predicted, namely, that God would renew his covenant with the human race through the life, death and resurrection of His Son. It was on this 14th day that Christ prayed to God in anguish on the Mount of Olives, asking Him to “[t]ake this cup away from me. But not what I want, but what you want.”[5] It was early the next morning that he was betrayed by Judas, accused by the Council of the High Priest, sentenced to death by Pontius Pilot under the influence of rioting crowds, and nailed to a cross on Mount Calvary, also named or Golgotha or place of the skull, just outside the walls of Jerusalem.The preparation for his death and spiritual rebirth in resurrection coincided with the number 14, just as the preparation for my spiritual rebirth would take place in apartment 414-14 in my first year at law school.

So 14 marked a period of great physical, spiritual, social, psychological and emotional renewal for me. And it also marks the day that Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection began, symbolising the renewal of an ancient Covenant between God and his people that will reach the entire human race and close the chasm between God and man, between holiness and sin, and between the death of the flesh and the life of soul in the eternal presence of God. And all of this, through God’s infinite forgiveness and through His boundless love for all of us, his children.

But I researched the number 14 some more throughout the Gospels and discovered that it continues to be associated with renewal throughout it. In the Gospels, the number 14, and particularly the number 4:14, continually refer to rebirth and new beginnings. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew describes Jesus’ genealogy. The author writes: “So then, there were fourteen sets of fathers and sons from Abraham to David, and fourteen from David to the time when the people were carried away to Babylon, and fourteen from then until the birth of the Messiah.” So the number 14 is symbolic of the genealogy of Christ or the very means by which He was born into this world.

And then I found the number 14 in the thunderous opening lines of the Gospel of John at 1:14, which tell us of the divine nature with which Jesus Christ was born. Before getting there, it is worth giving some context and meaning by repeating the opening lines of the text, which again dwell on beginning: “Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God. From the very beginning, the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him. The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to men. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been put out.” And then at 1:14, John writes: “The Word became a human being and lived among us. We saw his glory, full of grace and truth. This was the glory which he received as the Father’s only son.” Here was the Word, given physical form and launching from the world of spirit into the world of flesh, to bring a new beginning in a renewed Covenant between God and mankind. Here again, the number 14 is a linchpin that carries a part of the Gospel that centres on birth, as in “the Word became a human being”, or was born into human flesh on the day Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. Here, the number 14 to me represents physical renewal, through the physical coming-into-flesh of Christ the child.

Another layer of meaning is added to the number 14 when I consider that as a Christian, I strive to join Jesus and his twelve disciples in their good works, to total the number 14.

And then at John 4:14: “but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with living water, and give him eternal life”. Here the image of a spring of water for the spirit, which renews us spiritually, struck me. This passage is a key part in the story of the Good Samaritan, who underwent a spiritual rebirth in Christ Jesus. In this story, Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman, whom he had asked for water, from her well, against the rules of the day, which held that a Samaritan and a Jew could not drink from the each other’s wells. In reply to her objection, Jesus tells the Good Samaritan of the new beginning and eternal life which her spirit can enjoy if she believes in his healing message of love and repentance for our sins, thus renewing herself with the water from God’s spiritual spring, which Christ Jesus provides; “whoever drinks the water that I give him will never be thirsty again.” So in John 4:14, we are told of the Good Samaritan who underwent a spiritual rebirth, “in spirit and in truth”,[6] by believing in Christ Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and saviour of mankind, who heals our inner spiritual selves by reconciling us with God through repentance and forgiveness of our sins. For Christ came to reap repentant souls into eternal life for the Father in heaven, “so that the man who plants and the man who reaps will be glad together.”[7]

Then we turn to Luke 4:14, which is the opening line that describes the beginning of Jesus’ mission to preach the Good News. After Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, and after Christs temptation in the desert, the author writes at 4:14, “[t]hen Jesus returned to Galilee, and the power of the Holy Spirit was with him. The news about him spread throughout all the territory.” Thus began Christ’s mission of renewing God’s Covenant with humanity in the four corners of the earth, as had been predicted by Jewish scripture.[8] Christ Gospel message of Good News was that we ought to love God with all of our heart, mind and soul, to seek forgiveness from Him, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For if we do, we shall inherit eternal life and not suffer the weight of sin which makes us wander in the afterlife as lost souls, lacking the tools we need to come closer to God. The proclamation of the Gospel represents to me, among other things, a social and psychological renewal for those preach it, and for those who receive it, bringing them together socially and psychologically, in one body and one mind, as the Body of Christ.

Next we turn to Mark 4:14, which states “the sower sows God’s message.” This is the opening line of Jesus’ parable of the sower. Jesus is the sower who sows God’s Gospel message of Good News. In this parable, Jesus tells us that some people hear His message, but as soon as they do, Satan comes down like a bird and pecks the seeds sowed by the messenger. As I understand this passage, such people are easily persuaded of the ‘righteousness’ of crooked ways, or just ignore or forget the Good News altogether. Others receive the message gladly, “but it does not sink deep into them, and they don’t last long. So when trouble or persecution comes because of the message, they give up at once.” “Other people, Christ tells us, “are like the seeds sown among the thorns. These are the ones who hear the message, but the worries about this life, the love for riches, and all other kinds of desires crowd in and choke the message, and they don’t bear fruit.” “But other people are like the seeds sown in good soil. They hear the message, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirty, some sixty, and some one hundred.” Here we have Mark at 4:14 telling us about the birth of the seed of the Good News in the souls of men, and thus of the beginning of a new spiritual life for those who accept Christ’s message. Those who receive it deeply, hold it deeply, such that it is capable of moving them towards virtuous action. When our emotions pull us in the opposite direction from what we know to be true, we are weak and can choose falsely. But when our emotional disposition is brought into accord with what we know to be true, then we are one with ourselves and with God’s holy truths. These ideas were given their fullest expression in the pre-Christian context by Plato in The Republic and by his student Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics. They were then taken up by the great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who harmonised them with Christian theology. In this, then, the parable of the sower represents to me emotional rebirth in the message and the virtue of Christ.

Just when we think we have understood God’s mystery, he shows us that his mystery goes deeper still. Such was my experience when I reconciled the Gospel readings above to the numbers 14 and 4:14.

The evening after I finished writing the paragraphs above, I was inspired by the thought of picking up my copy of St. Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. It had been sitting on my dresser for a long time. It had sat there for about 7 months without piquing my interest, but for reasons beyond me, this evening it did. It so happened that the last spot I had left off from was the beginning of the section in which St. Augustine gives a dissertation about the significance of numbers, particularly about the number 40. I was awestricken, given I had just finished writing about numbers.

I am reminded by the time my aunt found an old letter by accident on my grandmother’s wedding anniversary. The letter had been addressed to my grandmother by her late husband, my grandfather, while they were dating. And here, in a similar way, my mind and my thoughts were directed to a text, which coincided perfectly with my cursory scriptural research of the number 14 in the Gospels. I read St. Augustine’s dissertation about the number 40. He writes:

Ignorance of numbers, too, prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way. A candid mind, if I may so speak, cannot but be anxious, for example, to ascertain what is meant by the fact that Moses and Elijah, and our Lord Himself, all fasted for forty days. And except by knowledge of and reflection upon the number, the difficulty of explaining the figure involved in this action cannot be got over. For the number contains ten four times, indicating the knowledge of all things, and that knowledge interwoven with time. For both the diurnal (i.e. daily) and the annual revolutions are accomplished in periods numbering four each; the diurnal in the hours of the morning, the noontide, the evening, and the night; the annual in the spring, summer, autumn, and winter months. Now while we live in time, we must abstain and fast from all joy in time, for the sake of that eternity in which we wish to live; although by the passage of time we are taught this very lesson of despising time and seeking eternity. Further, the number ten signifies the knowledge of the Creator and the creature, for there is a trinity in the Creator; and the number seven indicates the creature, because of the life and the body. For the life consists of three parts, whence also God is to be loved with the whole heart, the whole soul, and the whole mind; and it is very clear that in the body there are four elements of which it is made up. In this number ten, therefore, when it is placed before us in connection with time, that is, when it is taken four times we are admonished to live unstained by, and not partaking of, any delight in time, that is, to fast for forty days. Of this we are admonished by the law personified in Moses, by prophecy personified in Elijah, and by our Lord Himself, who, as if receiving the witness both of the law and the prophets, appeared on the mount between the other two, while His three disciples looked on in amazement. Next, we have to inquire in the same way, how out of the number forty springs the number fifty, which in our religion has no ordinary sacredness attached to it on account of the Pentecost, and how this number taken thrice on account of the three divisions of time, before the law, under the law, and under grace, or perhaps on account of the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Trinity itself being added over and above, has reference to the mystery of the most Holy Church, and reaches to the number of the one hundred and fifty-three fishes which were taken after the resurrection of our Lord, when the nets were cast out on the right-hand side of the boat (John 21:11). And in the same way, many other numbers and combinations of numbers are used in the sacred writings, to convey instruction under a figurative guise, and ignorance of numbers often shuts out the reader from this instruction.[9]

I am continually stupefied, overjoyed and lifted up by the reality that God enchants my day-to-day life with His signs. Through them he tells us, his children, that we are not alone, and that He is with us, watching over us and guiding us like a shepherd; that He is always with us, though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death,[10] mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.[11]

There is a long tradition in the Jewish faith of “listening” to God. God speaks to his children, and we are meant to listen to him and obey what He wants for us, the master prescriber, the perfect doctor, tending to our happiness and fulfillment. I believe great care, discernment and analysis are required, lest we become like fools, babbling and doing harm to ourselves and to others in God’s name. But when we listen carefully, I believe we can pick up on the rhythms and the rhymes that God weaves through our lives.

So then, what have we learned from St. Augustine’s piece reproduced above? First, that he understood, as we should too, the significance of numbers in Scripture. Second, that God can weave signs and symbols in our lives, which can take the form of numbers, to show us His presence and to increase our love and commitment for and our appreciation of Him. Third, we have learned that the number 14 is 10 plus 4, with all the symbolism contained above, as well 40, which is the product of 4 times 10. And the number 40 is one of the most sacred numbers in the Scriptures.

I found within the number 14 all the symbolic richness given to it by Scripture. I feel warm throughout, blessed by God’s interaction with me. The vibrations which I feel between God and I are strong inside of me, and they are like the vibration of sound within my heart when a great harmony is reached on the deepest and the lightest of string instruments played together in a great chamber. In this I know He is with me, and that the events, people and the good thoughts that come my way are sent by Him as bridges that I may cross to come to closer to Him. My legs in this journey are unconditional love, discernment, and obedience to His commands. I pray I walk unhindered the path He has laid down before me.

[1] Of note, I began my studies in 2011, a year with double digits, in my champagne year.

[2] Mark 2:22. “Fresh skins for new wine!” Jesus speaks of the spiritual renewal he brings to humankind. New wine spoils old wineskins, so fresh ones are needed. In this analogy, Christ is the new wine. The idea of a new covenant symbolized by wine reappears in the Christian tradition, most importantly at the last supper.

[3] Mark 14:33.

[4] Mark 14:34.

[5] Mark 14:36.

[6] John 4:24.

[7] John 4:36.

[8] Isaiah 11:12.

[9] St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/12022.htm, accessed 4 February 2016.

[10] Psalm 23.

[11] Salve Regina

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