What is it about the number seven that attracts our attention? Perhaps, it has something to do with star-gazing. There are seven stars in the constellation of the Plough, which we associate with the O’Casey play The Plough and the Stars. Then again, there are seven stars in the constellation called Orion.
If you look at the Scriptures with an eye out for the number seven, you will see that it occurs often enough and is a code for God’s presence in the story. This number seven figures in the Bible with God creating the Universe in six days and then resting. This rest day makes everything created holy and blest.
Even today, we gather as a community to take time out from our busy lives on a Sunday to celebrate. On this seventh day of the week, we can reflect on our care for creation as the stewards and carers that God wanted us to be.
Christians try to bring a greater awareness of God’s presence in our world, so it may be of some comfort to know that the first Christians had the same difficulty of recognising the presence of the Risen Christ. A few examples will suffice: John’s Gospel tells us that Mary ran with oils to anoint the body of Jesus after his death. She asks a gardener where they have put Him but does not recognise Him. This gardener turns out to be the Risen Saviour who then calls out her name – “Mary”. Immediately, instant recognition follows. Two other disciples thought Jesus was a stranger when he caught up with them on their journey to Emmaus. And thirdly, when the disciples were out fishing on the lake, none of them recognised the person on the shore, except John: “It is the Lord.”
The Christian Code
The same experience is happening today. Our contemporaries are finding it quite difficult to spot God at work in their lives. The early Christians liked to use a hidden code to spot God working in the world – the hidden code was the number seven. A few of their experiences can show us how the code worked. That number seven occurs in that fishing trip of the disciples we mentioned already. Before getting into the boat, five of the disciples are named and two are unnamed, so this adds up to seven. The gospel also remarks that Jesus fed hundreds of people in the desert with five loaves and two fish. Then he broke the bread and handed it to his disciples.
Seven is a Code
Of course, he did the same at the Last Supper, so we have a direct link to our Sunday Eucharist and our Communion. This number seven is sprinkled all over the gospels. It is saying God is present here. Christians, after all, receive seven sacraments, starting with Baptism. At Confirmation, boys and girls receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. You could say that seven is a signal in the Gospels that Jesus is working in the story. Otherwise, the reader or the listener might miss out on the key point.
Stars at Night
If we look up at the heavens at night, the clearest stars with the clearest pattern are the Plough and Orion. For sailors, both were easy to find at night. Both were steady, immovable and that made their direction-finding easy too. Sailors might have to sit it out in stormy weather and cloudy skies while waiting for the sky to clear. With the stars above their heads again, they could sail to port. So there is something going on with this number seven, whether it is a secret code for the Christian family to find God in their lives, or a guide to the universe on starry nights or a simple pathway in the darkness. In the Christian way of life, it is all about finding God, otherwise it is a game of numbers for unbelievers. If the code does not prompt me to action, then I have missed the insight contained in the secret seven.
Alan Mowbray, SJ