Numbers are very significant and important – so much of what we hear in each news bulletin these days alas. Numbers are defined as ‘a mathematical object used to count, measure and label’. I have to be honest and say that I am hopeless with numbers - give me words to play and work with any day! However we cannot do without numbers.
As rich as our Ritual is in its poetic language, think of all the numerical references and significations within it. The very layout of the Lodge, the opening questions and answers, the visible symbols, the time periods. So many aspects of Masonry depend on numbers.
The former definition, brief though it is, points to an important duality which can exist in relation to some numbers, an element which goes beyond a simple counting or measuring to a labelling – a greater meaning or significance. As with our Ritual, in the Old Testament, the Israelites attached symbolic significance to numbers. Indeed it has been said that when you encounter a number in the Old Testament in many cases it should not be taken in its literal sense at all, but rather a deeper meaning sought. The same is of course often true of the Ritual.
To take some examples from the Bible, one (1) represents uniqueness or undivided wholeness. The Shema of the Jews, taken from Deuteronomy 6, reads “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord”. This confession not only acknowledges the uniqueness of the God of Israel, but also emphasises that there is no contradiction within him.
Seven (7) is the total of the numbers which represent heaven and earth and so speaks of completeness and perfection. There were seven chief heavenly bodies known to the ancients – the sun, the moon and five planets; seven days of the week and the seventh day itself represented God’s complete work in creation. Intriguingly in the whole of the Old Testament God is referred to by seven different names. This is why lucky number seven is such a good number!
Ten (10) is simply a round number. In his great work of creation we hear the words “and God said…” ten times, which correspond with the Ten Commandments. The ten words of creation matched by ten measures to keep it in good order. This happens to be the tenth Sunday reflection, so that’s a good place to be.
I could go on, but the final number that I want to consider is three (3). Three is widely regarded as a divine number and many religions have triads of gods. In the Bible the number three is rarely connected with God but rather suggests God’s presence. The Temple itself was divided into three parts. Time is divided into three parts: past, present and future and God is he who is, who was and who is to come.
In Christian terms we perhaps think of the Trinity, although we should probably more correctly think of the Trinity in association with the number one and not three! Today is Trinity Sunday when the Church marks a turning point in the year, moving away from Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter and into Ordinary Time. A day on which we worship the mystery in unity of the Holy and undivided Trinity. It is for today that the Provincial Church Service had been arranged and the symbol at the beginning of this reflection it that which I had chosen to appear on the cover page of the order of service.
When words and numbers fail to deliver we have to look to other means of expression and I am particularly taken by the above symbol. The core symbol is a triquetra which is known to date back to the fourth Century BC, and is reflected in the Celtic triscell which may be more familiar – three equal, distinct segments, pointing in different directions yet forming part of a single unified whole. Superimposed are the crown representing the kingdom of God the Father, the Cross of love and life of God the Son, and the dove of God the Holy Spirit descending and sanctifying.
Yet when it comes to speaking of God all words, numbers and symbols are ultimately inadequate, for God is beyond all expression. These aids all help us on our way, and are valuable and important, but even as we journey in this life we can only attain so much knowledge and understanding, and have to remember and recognise the limitations of our gifts and the awesome, incomprehensible, mysterious, wonder of God who made us and sustains us.
This well-known hymn in praise of the Trinity acknowledges that the only proper response of the whole creation is to fall down and worship God.
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.
Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see:
Only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power in love, and purity.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! merciful and mighty,
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Reginald Heber (1783–1826).
I offer this prayer:
"O Lord God Almighty, eternal, immortal, invisible, the mysteries of whose being are unsearchable: accept we beseech thee our praises for the revelation which thou hast made of thyself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons, and one God; and mercifully grant that ever holding fast this faith we may magnify thy glorious name; who lives and reigns, one God, world without end."
So mote it be.
P.S. 1000 words appear in this reflection according to Word…!