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Preparing for
the Jubilee Year
by Maria Harris

The countdown has begun. In less than a year, the new millennium will arrive, with its promises of blessing and new life. Catholics throughout the world, responding to Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter, On the Coming Third Millennium, are organizing for the event along with people of other religious faiths—and sometimes of none.

The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches has called for an interfaith meeting to observe the year 2000. Petitions to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to declare 2000 a Jubilee Year have been circulated worldwide and ask that the most severely indebted of the world's poorest nations be forgiven their debts. Numerous international Web sites are accessible as resources. (For example, refer to the Jubilee 2000/USA web site.) And here at home, the Catholic Church in the United States has established diocesan Jubilee committees, held gatherings to study the Jubilee and organized pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land and local churches to herald its arrival. For use on the local parish level, the U.S. Catholic Conference has published "A Parishioner's Guide: Preparing for the Jubilee Year 2000."

As the excitement gathers to a crescendo, we pause—as Jubilee teaching tells us we must—to explore the biblical roots of Jubilee, and to find out what Jubilee 2000 requires of us. For even though "Jubilee" means a fullness of years characterized by festivity, gratitude and celebration, it also means a great deal more.

Jubilee's biblical roots

Many biblical sources provide clues to the meaning of Jubilee, but three Scripture texts are primary in answering the question, "Just what is a Jubilee?" One text is in Chapter 4 of St. Luke's Gospel. The others, from the Old Testament, are Chapter 61 of the Book of Isaiah and Chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus.

Luke relates a story familiar to those who know that Gospel. It describes the occasion when Jesus returns to Nazareth at the start of his public ministry, and accepts an invitation to speak in the local synagogue. Searching the scroll handed to him, he chooses a passage from the prophet Isaiah, standing up to read it:

"'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.'

"Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, 'Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:16-21).

Scripture scholars tell us that in making the stunning statement, "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing," Jesus was proclaiming a Jubilee, what Isaiah had called a year of the Lord's favor. It promised everything that a Jubilee Year had taught people to hope for: good news to the poor, release to prisoners, the end of blindness, freedom from oppression.

[The Scripture also tells us that as they reflected on Jesus' words, and as those words sank in, the listeners in the synagogue became more and more angry and finally rose up to throw Jesus off the brow of the hill on which Nazareth was built. Perhaps Jubilee teaching made too great a demand on them.]

The second primary Scripture is the passage from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus read on that Sabbath day, a passage which goes on to say that those who practice Jubilee will be called "oaks of justice planted by the Lord." They will be remembered as people who built up ancient ruins and repaired ancient cities (Isaiah 61:1-4), tasks startling in their contemporary evocation of our own ruined cities.

The third biblical teaching, however, is Jubilee's core, and when Jesus named the works to which the Spirit of the Lord was anointing him, he joined the prophet Isaiah in pointing back to this core. Found in Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, it is a blueprint that summarizes Jubilee tradition from the past even as it teaches how to proclaim it now and in the future:

"Seven weeks of years shall you count—seven times seven years—so that the seven cycles amount to forty-nine years. Then, on the tenth day of the seventh month let the trumpet resound; on this, the Day of Atonement, the trumpet blast shall re-echo throughout your land. This fiftieth year you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when every one of you shall return to his own property, every one to his own family estate. In this fiftieth year, your year of jubilee, you shall not sow, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth or pick the grapes from the untrimmed vines....[T]his is the jubilee, which shall be sacred for you" (Leviticus 25:8-12a).

What does the jubilee require of us?

Jubilees were proclaimed in ancient Israel, and have been recorded as occurring in the Catholic Church since A.D. 1300. Over these millennia, Jubilee has developed into a set of practices that taken together form an entire spirituality. To honor and to live such a spirituality, the following are essential: We must let the land lie fallow, proclaim freedom, practice forgiveness (especially the forgiveness of debts) and do justice. Then, having made these central to our lives, we must hold a great feast, a Jubilee, celebrating both the year of Jubilee itself and the God who has granted it. We must sing a great psalm of gratitude, jubilation and praise to the Giver of all good gifts.

How might we observe these practices?

(1) Let the land lie fallow. When the Jubilee comes, we are to stop: no sowing, reaping, harvesting. Even if we aren't farmers, we know that means we must keep a Sabbath. The Jubilee Sabbath is not one day's length, however, like most Sabbaths. Instead it lasts an entire year, even two. Such a Sabbath commands us to give a rest to the earth, the water, the trees and the nonhuman animals; to care for the natural world; and to express gratitude for earth's gifts of food and nourishment. But it also reminds us to let the land of ourselves lie fallow, to cultivate stillness, solitude and our capacity for mysticism. During a Jubilee Sabbath, we must learn to say, with the wise old woman, "Sometimes Ah sets and thinks, and sometimes Ah jes sets."

(2) Proclaim freedom. This second Jubilee command is treasured in the United States. Actually, it is engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia with the words from Leviticus, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants." Surprisingly, many United States citizens are unaware of this, although most seem to know another feature of the Liberty Bell: its crack!

Both features are worth reflection, for in the United States we take freedom seriously and at our best recognize that none of us can be free unless all of us are free. And so, we work to overcome the terrible evils that keep us chained: racism, poverty, the abuse of children, a criminal-justice system in which a rich boy's prank is a poor boy's felony. We also work to combat these evils as flawed people, aware that we too are "cracked": imperfect, lazy, unfree and desperately in need of grace and "a year of the Lord's favor."

(3) Practice forgiveness. In the Our Father, Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness. Although we use the words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," that is not the most accurate translation. What Jesus really taught us to say was, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." He knew that in a Jubilee year all debts were to be forgiven.

This is what prompts today's Jubilee people to work for the forgiveness of the debt that crushes millions in the world's poorest countries. Attending to the remission of debt and praying the Our Father as a jubilary prayer can be in concert with the interior and interpersonal demands of forgiveness, fostering the healing of more personal fissures of unforgiveness—those in our communities, our families and our hearts.

(4) Do justice. The Book of Leviticus describes the Jubilee as a time when property is returned to its original owners, especially if that property was lost through poverty, debt, bondage or slavery. Today such returns may not always be possible, although it is remarkable that nations have done exactly this in the 20th century. For example, Great Britain has ceded India back to the Indians; the Philippines no longer belong to the United States; native peoples have had land restored to them. The principle underlying such return is this: Find out what belongs to whom and give it back (a phrase coined by biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann). Such is the work of justice.

Many, perhaps most of us, cannot restore land to its original owners. But doing justice—finding out and giving back—has another meaning: Redistribute the capital we do have. This means that if we have the "capital" of education or health care or white skin or a U.S. passport, we owe it to one another to balance the privileges each of these bestows, helping to make the world more equitable and more just. The lyrics of an old song tell us, "The moon belongs to everyone." The Jubilee reminds us that the earth does, too.

(5) Hold a great feast. When fallow land, freedom, forgiveness and justice become part of our lives, it is time to celebrate these realities. Even as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving are great secular liturgies, so the Jubilee is a great worldwide, ecumenical liturgy, especially in its power to erase boundaries, to herald good news, to prompt songs of jubilation. Teaching us to do these things, the Jubilee ends and begins with the same instruction: Gather up the years, seven upon seven upon seven, leading us to mark the 50th or 100th or 2,000th year as the Jubilee.

To begin the Jubilee Year, choose a special day, perhaps the Day of Atonement, perhaps Christmas Eve 1999, perhaps January 1, 2000. Then, as that day dawns, sound the trumpet loudly, letting its music of freedom, forgiveness and justice flow "throughout all your land." For it is a Jubilee; it shall be holy to you.

Guiding questions

To help you enter fully into the spirit of the Jubilee Year, the following questions may serve as a guide for reflection and action:

1. In what ways is the Spirit of the Lord "upon" me?

2. Of what do I wish to become free?

3. What debts does Jubilee prompt me to forgive?

4. In my life, what is it now time to give back?

5. How do I plan to celebrate Jubilee 2000?*

Maria Harris is the author of Jubilee Time (Bantam Books, 1995) and Proclaim Jubilee! (Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1996) and 11 other books.



Cardinal Roger Mahony


Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles does not claim to be a financial wizard who fully understands the intricacies of international debt. But that has not prevented him from speaking out as a religious leader and calling for the relief of debts of poor countries around the world on the eve of a new millennium, just as Pope John Paul II has done.

"We have to take a bold and courageous stand" on behalf of real people who are forced to go without basic services because of their country's staggering debt, Cardinal Mahony told Millennium Monthly. Such debt, he said, has a "human face"—a face that North American Catholics in particular need to look into. In Zambia, for example, every woman, man and child owes $750 in external debt, while in the southern hemisphere every person owes an estimated $300 to foreign creditors. Meanwhile, Hurricane Mitch has left much of already-impoverished and heavily-indebted Central America on its knees.

Indeed, it is poor people who suffer the most when money is diverted from education, health care and housing so that their nation's external debt can be paid. If a clinic isn't built because a country's limited funds are being used to pay its external debt, "individuals and families still have medical problems," Cardinal Mahony explained. "The people for whom many projects were destined never see them," while their needs are "put on the back burner."

But the cardinal is determined to "keep the issue on the front burner," especially as the Church prepares to celebrate a Jubilee Year. The Scriptures (Leviticus 25) speak of a Jubilee Year as one when slaves are freed, land is restored and debts are laid aside. Cardinal Mahony believes the Church should be a "catalyst" in encouraging the application of ethical principles to economic issues, however complex.

He, for one, appreciates those complexities, including the fact that many indebted nations have misused borrowed funds. That is why he favors audits and, when necessary, "halting further lending until the corruption is cleaned up." But in the meantime, he says, it is the poor people of such nations who continue to be crushed and victimized. It is on their behalf, he believes, that voices need to be raised.

He urges individuals and groups to "press the issue" by writing to the White House and Congress, and to such lending institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. "We don't have to have all the answers. All we have to do is gather the people of good will and see if together we can find a path."*

— by Judy Ball



Jubilee Pledge

Catholics in the U.S. are being invited to prepare for the new millennium by recommitting themselves to answer Jesus' call to "love your neighbor as yourself." The Jubilee Pledge for Charity, Justice and Peace answers Pope John Paul II's observation about how to prepare for the new millennium: "Indeed, it must be said that a commitment to justice and peace...is a necessary condition for the preparation and celebration of the Jubilee."

The pledge is being distributed by a coalition of justice groups, including the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services. Those who answer the call to work for peace and justice in the new millennium pledge themselves to:

  • Pray regularly for justice and peace.
  • Learn more about Catholic social teaching.
  • Reach across boundaries of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
  • Live justly in all areas of life.
  • Serve, through time and talent, persons who are poor and vulnerable.
  • Give more generously to persons in need, wherever they are.
  • Advocate public policies that promote justice, peace, human dignity.
  • Encourage others to also work for justice and peace.*


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