I have never been much of a card player. Rook has always been my card game of choice, and I am probably average competition for most folks. However, I have always been fascinated by numbers, numerology, and symbolism of all kinds. One of my major research papers in graduate school was on number symbolism and other kinds of symbolism (namely, theological symbolism) in the music of J.S. Bach—dry stuff for most people, I’m sure, but really intriguing to me.
Bach’s music is rife with symbolism. It has always fascinated me how so many intriguing, non-musical elements abound in Bach’s music, yet these elements never seem to detract in any way from the urgency and vitality of the music itself. How can so much symbolism and wonderful working of theoretical elements be packed into a piece of music, and yet the music itself still soars, unrestrained by the symbols, the theory, and intelligent design that in the hands of a lesser composer would surely weigh the music down? This is the genius of Bach. It is something that many later composers, particularly those of the early twentieth-century, tried to emulate. Few, however, were really successful at it. But that is another discussion, and I have taken a major detour.
This essay is really not about music at all, but about my fascination with numbers. Since the passing of my grandmother a few months back, I have repeatedly had one thought that relates to numbers: namely, the year of her birth and the year of her death. Grandma lived a good long life. She died at the age of 98. She was physically active right up to the end, and her mind was as sharp as any person half her age. Grandma was born in 1913, and she passed away in 2011. When I consider these two years with no particular context, the number 12 is what stands out in my mind. Grandma never lived in year 12. She lived in every year of the 20th century after the year 1912, and she lived in every year of the 21st century before the year 2012. But she did not live in the year 12 of either century.
Let’s look for a moment at the number 12. The number 12 signifies completion. In the Bible, perhaps the most famous number 12 is the 12 apostles. All of the apostles where gathered around the table at the last supper—it was a “complete” gathering, a full table. And there are other iterations of the number 12 in the Bible: the 12 tribes of Israel; the 12 anointed priests and kings of ancient Israel; the age at which Jesus first appeared in public at the temple, where He speaks His first recorded words. In the book of Revelation, the number 12 is widely used to represent completion: there are 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel who figure prominently during the Great Tribulation; the bride of Christ has a crown of 12 stars; the New Jerusalem has 12 gates of pearls, and these gates are guarded by 12 angels, and they have the names of the 12 tribes of Israel above them; the wall of the great city is made of precious stones with 12 foundations, and the names of the 12 apostles are to be found inscribed in the foundations. You get the idea: wherever we see the number 12 in the Bible, it signifies completion, and completion—meaning that nothing else can be added—indicates a certain kind of “perfection.”
Today, March 7, 2012, would have been my grandmother’s 99th birthday, the first of her birthdays in my lifetime where we are not able to celebrate with her. I have found it difficult to shed tears for her since her death. Rather, I find myself smiling a bit when I think of her these days. This must have something to do my understanding, acceptance, and appreciation that she lived a very good life—all of it—from beginning to end. Her life was fulfilling, and it was complete. I know that she is today in a much better place, and I have the hope that I may one day see her again.
Bach’s musical thoughts are so overpowering that they easily overcome the symbolism that would threaten to degrade the pure musical essence, perhaps to the point of destroying the music. There is a completion and perfection in Bach’s music that is rare. I like to think that my grandmother’s life, like the music of Bach, was equally rare, complete, and perfect.
In the Bible, the number 12 is a powerful symbol of completion and perfection. As it relates to my grandmother, I like to think that the number 12 represents two bookends containing the magnum opus of her rich and fulfilling life. The number 12 stands, at least in my mind, as a representation of completion and perfection in my grandmother’s life. It all brings a smile to my face.