Sometimes I wonder if people learned to count on 6-fingered hands; so many things presume a number system based on 12.
Consider time. Almost everyone in the whole world divides the day into 24 hours; some divide it further into 12 a.m. (before noon) and 12 p.m. (after noon). Also, each hour has 60 minutes — thats 5 times 12 — and each minute, 60 seconds.
Spatial measurements are similar. A circle is divided into 360 degrees — 6 times 60. Mapmakers and navigators count 180 degrees east and west from a prime meridian — an imaginary north-south line passing through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Each of these degrees of longitude is subdivided into 60 minutes and each minute, into 60 seconds.
There are 12 inches to a foot, 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the Zodiac and 12 days of Christmas. We may shop for a dozen (12) rolls in a bakery and we may get one more as a bonus, a bakers dozen. Maybe thats why the week has 7 days — 6 days of work plus a bonus day of rest from God — and why 7 is considered a lucky number.
In Jewish Scripture, 12 is an important number. Ishmael had 12 chieftains. Jacob had 12 sons. Israel had 12 tribes. The Law of Moses called for 12 holy breads in the sanctuary. The great basin there rested on 12 bronze oxen. Joshua set up 12 memorial stones after crossing the Jordan. Many armies had 12 thousand men and 12 thousand chariots. The number 12 came to signify completeness — a good round number.
Its no coincidence that 12 is an important number in Christian Scripture, too. Jesus taught in the temple when he was 12. After the miracle of the multiplication, there were 12 baskets of leftovers. Jesus trusted that the Father could provide him with 12 legions of angels. Johns vision of the saved was 12 thousand from each of the tribes of Israel. Above all else, Jesus chose 12 apostles — referred to by all as the Twelve.
How many people knew Jesus during his lifetime? Sometimes he preached to 5,000, but his inner circle was relatively small. He sent out 72 disciples (6 times 12) to prepare his way, evoking the 72 elders that assisted Moses. Jacobs 12 sons were the foundation of ancient Israel; Jesus choice of the Twelve symbolized the foundation of the new.
Jesus was very close to the Twelve plus a few others and lavished most of his time and attention on them. His pastoral methodology was not so much to seek maximum exposure for himself as to form in depth a core group of leaders who, guided by his Spirit, would carry on his work.
How many people get to know you during your lifetime? Some professionals — doctors, nurses, teachers, counselors, clergy, actors or political leaders — may deal with thousands. Movies, radio, TV and the internet expose celebrities to millions. But, how big is your inner circle? How many people can you get really close to, and how many people can get really close to you?
As Jesus did, maybe you should lavish your time and attention on your Twelve — your immediate family, your closest friends or your key collaborators — giving them all you can and trusting that, guided by the Spirit, they in turn will reach out to others.
Twelve is a good round number. It signifies completeness. It may also be, more or less, a practical measure of how many close relationships we can support and sustain at any given time.
Maybe 12 times 12 is the way to change the world: 12 to 144 to 1,728 to 20,736 to 248,832 to 2,985,984 to 35,831,808 to 429,981,696 to 5,159,780,352 — thats almost everybody.
Hey, and its only 129!
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern