Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 27, 1999
The year of the Lord's favour
In the Western world, we have come to see the passing of major anniversaries as an arbitrary point in time with no particular significance in itself. We tend not to see anything magical in the date itself.
So, the start of the third millennium next week might well be seen as just another day, albeit one where we wonder if the furnace will keep working and if the planes will still run on time.
Still, it is the anniversary of the Incarnation we celebrate as well as the nearly 2,000-year existence of the Church Jesus founded. Jesus' birth changed everything for us. It gave us the possibility of eternal life and it challenged us to live out the jubilee.
Pope John Paul plans to mark the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 with apologies for misdeeds by the Church's sons and daughters. This is a significant event, mainly because the fact of the Church making an apology represents a shift in its self-understanding.
This change began with Pope John XXIII who offered the Church a more human, less ethereal style of papacy than had been the norm. It gained steam with the Second Vatican Council's statements on religious liberty, ecumenism and non-Christian religions which, if nothing else, presented the Church in far humbler terms than it had previously seen itself.
But Pope John Paul II has given added momentum to the change. He has abandoned the tiara and the chair in which the pope was carried around St. Peter's Square. He has taken other symbolic steps to bring the papacy down to earth and has issued a bold call for a re-examination of the nature of the papacy itself.
Now the Church will apologize for historic sins. The traditional view has been that while the Church's members can sin, the Church itself cannot. The Church after all is the Body of Christ. It is perhaps harder to maintain such a clean distinction when those whose behaviour is the subject of an apology - the people who ran the inquisitions and the Crusades, for example - did so with the explicit approval of the Church's highest authorities. The sin was a systemic part of the life of the Church at that time.
In apologizing for such activities, the Church is turning a corner toward a much humbler sense of itself. In this important instance, the jubilee is not an arbitrary date. Something is changing because of it.
May things also change in secular society because of the jubilee. The pope has called repeatedly for the forgiveness of the debt of the world's poorest nations. May this take place and may it be the first step to a much fairer sharing of the earth's resources.
The jubilee in Leviticus 25 was not an arbitrary date - it was the time to reestablish economic equality in society. Jesus explicitly made this jubilee his own with his first words in Luke's Gospel: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
We have tended to over-spiritualize these words. While Jesus' life, death and resurrection give them an added meaning, those words do not lose their original meaning because of Jesus. The jubilee is a sign of eternal life; a key part of that sign is a levelling of gross economic disparities between rich and poor.
The jubilee is a time not to paternalistically "take care of" the poor, but rather a time to eliminate the systemic injustice which grossly distorts relations among people. This is what Leviticus demands, a demand which Jesus makes his own in proclaiming "the year of the Lord's favour."
Next week we enter the year of jubilee. May our jubilee at last be the one foretold so long ago in Leviticus.
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