FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
June 7, 1999
It only happens every 1,000 years. Millennium clocks are already ticking down to zero time, midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, the end of one millennium and the start of another. Celebrations will break out around the world.
What is a healthy attitude towards all of this? Should we take seriously all the apocalyptic hype and believe that Jan. 1, 2000, will mean the end of the world or an intervention in our lives by a huge cosmic or divine force?
Or should we take a cynical approach, shrug the whole thing off and let Jan. 1, 2000 be simply another day? Is the turn of a century to be doomsday, magic or just another day at the office? How might we approach the new millennium and the celebrations surrounding it?
We begin by acknowledging that there is no theology of millenniums. The turn of a century means nothing special in terms of God's revelation. For a Christian, there is no magic in numbers.
In that sense, Jan. 1, 2000, will indeed be just another day. Don't expect fire from heaven, destroying angels, signs in the moon or the sun, nor beams of light or grace fom the other world.
Symbols can be rich, but they are still only symbols. Jan. 1, 2000, will dawn and end like every other day. You will still have to pay your taxes, do your laundry, brush your teeth and deal with your boss the day after.
On the other hand, while there is no magic in numbers, an anniversary of this magnitude – Jesus' 2,000th birthday, the 2,000th anniversay of the event by which we measure time on this planet – should not be ignored either. To let this event slide by without proper celebration would constitute not just a fault against Christianity but would be a virtual sin against humanity itself.
As Eliade used to say, no community should botch its births, deaths or founding events. To celebrate the millennium is to celebrate a birthday, except that in this case it is a big birthday indeed.
Moreover, as with all birthdays, while there is nothing magical about celebrating it on the particular day upon which you were born, highlighting the actual day heightens the symbolism and fires the imagination. It offers a rich opportunity for remembrance, for grounding yourself, for grace, for kairos in the biblical sense.
What a birthday or anniversay celebration offers is a special opportunity to – as a Saskatchewan poet Harry Hellman puts it – "do what we should have been doing all along, just sitting on the grass and loving."
That is essentially what the year 2000 and the jubilee celebrations surrounding it are meant to be, a year for sitting on the grass and loving. Biblically we call this a jubilee, a year of Sabbath.
What precisely is this? A jubilee has to do with the biblical concept of time. The Bible tells us that God created the world in six days and then rested on the Sabbath. That original seventh day was the first jubilee, the first sabbatical, and it was God who celebrated it.
When the theology of this is fleshed out, we see that biblically time is meant to have a certain rhythm which works this way: You work for six days, then have a one-day sabbatical; you work for six years, then have a one-year sabbatical; you work for a lifetime, then have an eternity of sabbatical.
To celebrate a jubilee therefore is to be on sabbatical in the biblical sense. We already have a miniature experience of this since we have one day of jubilee every week, Sunday. But we are also meant to have the occasional whole year of Sundays. That is what a jubilee year is meant to be, a year of sabbatical, a year of Sundays.
Thus for the jubilee year 2000 we are invited to "go on sabbatical" for a whole year, not necessarily as this is understood in the world, but as it is defined in Scripture, namely, as having a year of "un-ordinary time," time set aside from normal activities to forgive debts, reconcile with enemies, give away surplus goods, focus on things beyond work and making a living, and to rest and celebrate in God.
That is the agenda for the jubilee year, the agenda for a true sabbatical. It is a time to practise for the life of heaven since heaven is reconciliation and resting in God.
So this is what the millennium clocks are really ticking down to, a jubilee year, a biblical sabbatical for the world, a whole year for every person in the world to avail herself or himself of the opportunity "to just sit on the grass and love."
My suggestion is that we don't let this chance slip by; for most of us this may be the only sabbatical we ever get.