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Pentecost Sunday

The Importance of the Number Seven

Throughout Lent, Easter and Ascension the scriptures use the imagery of the Temple to show us who Christ is and what he does for us. We might think of his High Priestly Prayer during Holy Week from John's Gospel, the Letter to the Hebrews depicting the once and for all sacrifice of Christ, and the psalms of enthronement used for the Feast of the Ascension.

In fact, the whole of the work of Christ can be illustrated from the liturgical life of the people from whom he came, the worshipping community of the Second Temple. They understood their worship as being ordained by God, and as stretching back all the way to their ancestors' time in the desert. That Christ can be understood by means of such imagery is no surprise, since he was always the High Priest through whom this worship was, and is, offered. He came to fulfil in his own person all the rites and sacraments of the Old Law. He is the Lamb of the Passover, the High Priest who passes beyond the veil of creation to return to Father, the Holy of Holies. The Letter to the Hebrews actually discusses the layout and furnishings of the Temple as being used by the Holy Spirit to prefigure and illuminate the role of Christ.

So if Christ is prefigured by the rites of the Temple, so too is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was much on the minds of Jews around the time of Christ. They meditated upon who might be the servant of the Lord who had been given the Spirit (Isaiah 42). Some hymns from Qumran depict the Spirit as doing very much the same thing as in our Pentecost Sequence; giving rest, refreshing, strengthening, comforting and illuminating.

But in the Temple itself one of the most important furnishings was the Menorah, or seven-branched candle stand. Like our own sanctuary lamp it stood in front of the holy place, and itself became to represent the Lord, according to one vision of Zechariah (Zech 4). The seven lights of the lamp were said to represent the seven 'eyes of the Lord', connected with the seven spirits of the Lord who range throughout the whole earth. The Menorah was also thought to symbolise both the Tree of Life from Eden, and the burning bush, which though it blazed with fire was not consumed. The lamp was never allowed to go out. One medieval Jewish illustration shows Aaron, like a diligent sacristan, refilling the Menorah with olive oil.

Later Jewish tradition saw the lamp as symbolising 'God who gives light, and the Torah.' Such views passed over into Christian interpretations: John sees Jesus dressed as a priest among seven lamps at the beginning of Revelation. St Irenaeus wrote that

 …the earth is encompassed by seven heavens, in which dwell Powers and Angels and Archangels…That is why the Spirit of God in his indwelling is manifold, and is said by the prophet Isaiah to rest in seven forms on the Son of God, that is, on the Word in his Incarnation…And Moses revealed the pattern of this in the seven-branched candlestick.

And later Jerome clearly says that the lampstand is the Law, the head of the lampstand is Christ the light, and the seven lamps are the graces of the Holy Spirit, but he regards this interpretation as the one given by his Jewish instructors!

Today we celebrate the fact that through Jesus, the law has been given anew, the law which is the indwelling, the inner illumination, of the Holy Spirit. Each of us becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, where the sevenfold graces shine. We are grafted onto the Tree of Life, we become the bush, blazing with the love of the Spirit but not consumed - rather, strengthened and illuminated. By looking at the Menorah in the actual liturgical life of the Jewish people at the time of Christ, as well as in the scriptures and tradition, we see how fundamental such patterns are, how far back they go in the priestly life of the people of God. It's not an accident that there are seven virtues and seven sacraments.

So whether we consider the Church as a whole, or her individual members, today we rejoice in the living temple we have become by the gift of the Spirit, and pray for the grace and gifts the Spirit gives, as St Leo the Great wrote: 'For the Spirit of Truth himself makes the house of his glory shine with the brightness of his light, and will have nothing dark or lukewarm in his temple.'

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