By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published September 22, 2016 | En Español
A young lady in the class for the confirmation that I celebrated last Sunday asked me why certain numbers are used so frequently in sacred Scripture. It was a very fine question, and it raised the issue of the meaning of numbers in the Bible—a question of no little significance for believers.
Actually, every human culture has attached meanings to certain numbers. Here in the United States, it is common to find buildings that lack a 13th floor—since 13 is often considered an unlucky number. Seven, on the other hand, is widely considered a lucky number, and thus 777 often hits the jackpot in gaming halls. Our American society has attributed these meanings to those numbers as part of our tradition. Other cultures have other meanings for special numbers.
The Bible suggests the meaning of certain numbers as they were regarded in that cultural background. The number seven indicates completeness; the number eight implies newness. Forty is used to denote an entire life span, while six implies imperfection—thus 666 is the sign of the Satanic beast. Whenever we encounter those numbers in biblical texts, we get a glimpse of how the people of that time considered those numbers and their meanings. Biblical numbers are symbolic in their meaning.
Our Church loves using symbols that help us to understand aspects of our faith—through cultural associations that may communicate a deeper meaning.
Numbers are not the only symbols that we Catholics use to help us to understand religious tradition. We also use colors. The vestments that we wear at Mass have symbolic meanings. Red is the color of a martyr’s blood and is the color frequently associated with the power of the Holy Spirit. Purple is the color of penance and hopeful expectation, and thus we wear purple in the seasons of Lent and Advent. White and gold are the colors of majesty and innocence and are therefore used for feasts of Christ and the Blessed Mother, as well as for saints who are identified with their innocence and pastoral ardor. Green is the color that the Church uses to emphasize hope and fidelity and therefore is the color that dominates the entire Church year. These colors are the common ones that we use throughout the liturgical seasons.
Recently, we in the Archdiocese of Atlanta have developed the custom of offering a Mass that identifies with the occupations of a number of our significant people or with a special effort in our common life by a color designation. On Friday, Sept. 9, we offered our annual Blue Mass at Christ the King Cathedral, in recognition of the great service of our first responders. At that Mass we also prayed for peace and reconciliation throughout our country during these times of social unrest and violence.
October brings two Masses we celebrate each year. Our annual Red Mass, sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society, invites the members of the legal community to come together in prayer at the beginning of the new judicial year. Our next Red Mass will be held at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Thursday, Oct. 13, during which we will pray for those who serve us in the legal profession. And on Tuesday, Oct. 18, we will celebrate our annual White Mass at Christ the King Cathedral for and with those who work in the medical field.
On Tuesday, Oct. 4, we will offer our inaugural Green Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in honor of those who are dedicated to the protection of our environment and in union with Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’.”
Each of these chromatic Mass themes is symbolic of our awareness of the service of others who enrich our lives through their professional work.
We Catholics continue to use numbers, colors and other recognizable elements to help us remember the truths of our faith as well as all those who enrich our common life each day that we live.