CALLED AND CHOSEN BY GRACE
A Reflection on the Seventh Ordination Anniversary of Seven Men in Light of the Biblical Symbolism of the Number Seven
By Fr Galadima Bitrus, OSA
In the Gospel of Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus tells a parable in which he compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who gives out an invitation to his son’s wedding banquet. Those who were invited (the original, intended guests, so to speak) did not honour the invitation, all excused themselves as having one thing or the other to do. Finally, he sent his servants to invite just any other person that could be found on the street. Out of these, however, one came and sat without wearing the wedding robe and was noticed and sent out. The story has a lot of other dynamics that could be explored, but for the purpose of this reflection, I am sparing you all that. Let’s get straight away to the conclusion and message of the story: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14).
Like in this parable, many of us had no prior backgrounds for which we could be considered ordainable, so, we do not identify with the original guests who were invited to the wedding banquet but did not show up. We identify ourselves in many ways, instead, with those randomly called from the streets to come to this banquet of consecration into the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Out of the many of us randomly called, we saw some go out of the hall (probably asked out like the man not wearing the banquet dress, or probably the banquet did not meet their expectations, so they excused themselves out). In any case, we cannot but say with the author of the Gospel of Matthew, indeed many are called but few are chosen.
Interesting enough, we are marking today the seventh anniversary of the ordination of the seven of us, Augustinian friars.* Seven (7), as we know, has been a very significant number since ancient times, associated with completeness or perfection in the Judeo-Christian Sacred Scriptures, in ecclesiastical ordinances and in many ancient cultural and religious traditions (see C. Dickens, “Number Seven”, Household Words. A Weekly Journal 322 (1856) 454-456).
The first mention of seven in the Bible appears in its very first pages, in the first creation narrative (Gen 1:1-2:4). While other days are mentioned as a concluding refrain to God’s act of creation each day (“and it was evening and it was morning, the 1st day, …the 2nd day… and so on up to the 6th day), the 7th day has a long commentary, indicating both the fact that in it God brought to completion his work of creation and rested (in Hebrew, “šāḇat”) from any work that he had done, whence the term Sabbath (Gen 2:2). It was also the only day that God blessed (“bārek”) and consecrated (Qaddēš), that is, made holy or set apart from secular use (Gen 2:3).
As civilization progressed, the brothers Cain and Abel are said to have brought their offering to the Lord, with Cain the farmer bringing something of the fruit of the soil and Abel the herdsman bringing the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. Following the rejection of Cain’s offering and the acceptance of Abel’s, we are told that Cain became distressed and murdered his brother, Abel (Gen 4:1-8). His punishment, included fruitless tilling of the earth and ceaseless wandering, a punishment he cried out as too great to bear, since it exposed him to the risk of being killed by any passerby (vv.9-14).
At this the Lord assured him of protection and full justice, described in terms of a “sevenfold” vengeance on anyone who kills him (v.15). Also, Lamech, a descendant of Cain, poetically speaking to his wives, confesses to have committed murder like his ancestor, Cain. He, however seems to see his act as more justified than that of his ancestor. His violence, though disproportionate, was provoked: “I have slain a man for wounding me and a lad for bruising me” (Gen 4:23b). Therefore, he considers himself as having higher grounds for even fuller justice than his ancestor, Cain: “If Cain is avenged ‘sevenfold’, then Lamech ‘seventy-sevenfold’” (Gen 4:24).
For the continuity of life after the flood, God instructs Noah (the righteous man of his generation) to get into the Ark alongside his household and “seven” pairs of clean animals and “seven” pairs of the birds of the sky and pledges to send the rain in “seven” days’ time (Gen 7). Clearly, the number seven is here again evoked in its symbolism of completeness: these creatures are fully represented among the remnant or surviving few and the rain comes in the fullness of time.
Similarly, in Gen 41, Pharaoh dreams of “seven” well-fed cows by the Nile eaten up by another set of “seven” malnourished cows. He also dreams of “seven” fine ears of grain and then “seven” thin and scorched ears of grain (vv.1-7). The dream meant the same thing: “seven” years of plenty that will be followed by “seven” years of famine (vv.25-32).
In Exod 13:5-6, the Lord instructed the Israelites to remember to celebrate a festival commemorating their liberation from Egypt, which shall consist of eating unleavened bread for “seven” days, with the “seventh” day being the day of the festival proper.
During the exodus, when the Israelites came to the wilderness of Sin, situated between Elim and Sinai, they grumbled against Moses and Aaron because of the threat of starvation. The Lord promised to send down bread from heaven, from which the people were to gather only a day’s portion. The only exception was the sixth day when they were to gather a double portion (Exod 16:1-5). As for other days, anyone who gathered more than he needed and left it until morning, the food became infested with maggots and stank (Exod 16:20). But they were allowed to gather a double portion on the sixth day, without risking any maggot infestation. Moses explained the sense of gathering a double portion on the sixth day. He said to them: “This is what the Lord meant; tomorrow is a resting day, a holy rest (“šābbat qōdēš”) for the Lord” (Exod 16:23), hence, God was not going to supply manna on the “seventh” day and the people too were not to engage in any work; as a result, the Lord supplied a double portion on the sixth day instead (see Exod 16:24-30).
In Exod 20 (the account of the decalogue; cf. also Deut 5), the observance of the “seventh” day rest became institutionalized. It is the last theological commandment (bordering directly on God) and the first social commandment (bordering on human interaction). Thus, it serves as a fine point of interaction between theology and sociology. Here, a social requirement is made in imitatio Dei: man is to observe the “seventh” day rest and set the day apart, not engaging in any work, he and his household, freeborn or slave (see also Exod 16:23-30; 34:21; Num 15:32-36; Amos 8:5; Jer 17:21-22; Neh 13:15-21) in imitation of God who did all his work in six days and rested on the “seventh” day, blessing and consecrating it (Exod 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15).
The blessed and consecrated “seventh” day of rest came to be associated with worship in the sanctuaries (see 2 Kgs 4:23; Isa 1:13; 66:23), a day of sacrifices and other offerings in the Temple (see Lev 24:8; Num 28:9-10), as well as a day of festivity (see Hos 2:13; Lam 2:6).
In Exod 25, we find instructions on collecting gifts for the Lord that shall be used in building a sanctuary where the Lord will dwell. In the sanctuary, there shall be, among other things, a lampstand carrying “seven” lamps lit by olive oil, called the Menorah (cf. 25:31-39).
In Lev 4, when an anointed priest incurs guilt, it is prescribed that he offers as a sin offering, a bull without blemish, which he shall slaughter before the Lord, sprinkling its blood “seven” times (cf. 4:6). Also, in the ritual of cleansing one who had suffered from leprosy (Lev 14), the priest is instructed to have the blood of a clean bird slaughtered over fresh water to be sprinkled “seven” times on him who is to be cleansed of the bodily eruption (cf. 14:7).
In Lev 25, we have instructions according even the land a sabbatical year: “…but in the ‘seventh’ year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord” (25:4). A Jubilee year of atonement is also proclaimed calculated on the basis of the number seven: “You shall count off ‘seven’ weeks of years-‘seven’ times ‘seven’ years – so that the period of ‘seven’ weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years” (25:8).
After Joshua had been entrusted with leading the Israelites to enter and possess the promised land, having crossed the Jordan, the very first challenge was to conquer Jericho (Josh 2). The number seven (7) appears prominently in the account of the fall of Jericho. The Lord instructs Joshua to have the Israelites march round the city once for six days but “seven” times on the “seventh” day, the procession being led by “seven” priests carrying “seven” ram’s horns preceding the Ark. It is on the “seventh” day and during the “seventh” march that Jericho is said to have fallen to Israel (see Josh 6:1-16).
In 1 Sam 11, the Ammonite Nahash marched up to besiege the Israelite city of Jabesh-gilead. The men of Jabesh-gilead asked for a pact with Nahash, pledging to serve him as slaves. But he gave them the condition of first humiliating them by having their right eye gouged out. At this point, the men of Jabesh-gilead asked for “seven” days’ respite to decide if they would be in the condition to better give a fight or surrender (cf. 11:3).
In 2 Kigs 4, Elisha raises from dead the son of a Shunamite woman. The boy’s return to the fullness of life is presented in terms of sneezing seven times: “Thereupon, the boy sneezed “seven” times, and the boy opened his eyes” (4:35).
In the biblical wisdom literature, the symbolism of seven is not lacking either. Proverbs 6 speaks of “seven” things that are an abomination to the Lord: “a haughty bearing, a lying tongue, hands that shed blood, a mind that plots evil, a false witnessing testifying lies and one who incites brothers to quarrel” (6:16-19). Prov 9:1 speaks also of wisdom having built her house and hewn her “seven” pillars.
These are just some instances of the occurrences of seven in the Old Testament. The New Testament is also not left behind in the usage of the number seven. In Mt 15, Jesus blesses “seven” loaves and a few fish, and “seven” baskets full of leftover pieces were gathered (15:32-37). In Mt 18, Peter engages Jesus about how often one ought to forgive a brother who offends him: “As many as ‘seven’ times? Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (18:21-22), a conversation that echoes Lamech’s poem in Gen 4:24 considered earlier in this reflection.
Luke 8:2 refers to Mary Magdalene as the one from whom “seven” demons had gone out. In Acts, when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint of injustice in the daily distribution of food to needy members of the community (widows) was resolved by the creation of a ministry of “seven” men of good standing, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to take up the task while the apostles focused on the ministry of prayer and the word (cf. 6:1-6).
In the book of Revelation which is the book of symbolic language per excellence, the number seven is prominently employed. The receiver of the revelations who names himself as John stands in the Island called Patmos and hears a voice asking him to write what he sees and send to the “seven” Churches (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea; 1:11). As he turns to look, he sees “seven” golden lamps in the midst of which stands one like the Son of Man (1:12-13). This figure held in his right hand “seven” stars (1:16).
After the revelation about the Churches, he also has a revelation of heaven where he was shown one seated on the throne, in front of which were burning “seven” flaming torches defined as the “seven” spirits of God (4:5). And on the right hand of the one seated on the throne was a scroll sealed with “seven” seals (5:1). The opening of the “seventh” seal occasioned silence in heaven for about half an hour (8:1). Then the visionary saw “seven” angels standing before God and “seven” trumpets were given to them (8:2). He also saw a mighty angel coming down from heaven and at his shout, “seven” thunders sounded (10:3.4). He saw another angel standing on the sea swearing: “in the days when the ‘seventh’ angel is to blow his trumpet, “the mystery of God will be fulfilled, as he announced to his servants the prophets (10:7).
The great red dragon threatening the woman clothed with the sun and having the moon under her feet and on her head twelve stars, is described as having “seven” heads and ten horns, and “seven” diadems on his heads (12:1-3). In another vision, John sees “seven” angels carrying “seven” plagues which will be the last manifestation of God’s wrath (15:1). In another instance, he looks and sees the temple of the tent of witness in heaven opened, whence come the “seven” angels with the “seven” plagues (15:6), who were also given “seven” golden bowls full of the wrath of God (15:7).
In Rev 17, we hear of “one of the ‘seven’ angels who had the ‘seven bowls’” coming to speak to the visionary about the judgment of the great whore seated on many waters (17:1), represented as a woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of blasphemous names, having “seven” heads and ten horns (17:3). The “seven” heads of the beast upon which the whore is seated are explained as the “seven” mountains representing “seven” kings (17:10).
Just as in the Scriptures, so also in the tradition of the Church, the number seven is highly employed and accorded great significance The Church teaches about “seven” gifts of the Holy Spirit; “seven” sacraments; “seven” corporal works of mercy; “seven” spiritual acts of mercy; “seven” capital sins etc.
Clearly, seven is a beloved and very significant number in the Bible and in the life of the Church, and even in older religious traditions. We are thankful for being called, chosen and ordained in seven, thus sharing in the blessing of this significant number. As we mark our seventh anniversary, we renew our participation in the blessing that the number seven symbolizes, relying constantly on God to lead us day after day in the journey to the perfection and completion which the number seven represents.
* Seven of us, Frs Kenneth Sodje, Chinonso Egbedike, Mark Jande, Yashim Gabriel, Iwuh Francis, Dennis Davou and myself, Galadima Bitrus, all of the Order of Saint Augustine, Nigeria, were ordained on 19th July 2014 at our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral, Makurdi by the then Papal Nuntio to Nigeria, Rt. Rev. Dr Augustine Kasujja. We were ordained alongside thirteen others belonging to the Via Christi Society and the Diocese of Makurdi. Please pray for us!