The history of Millennium celebrations described GTheorge Washington died on 14 ecember 1799. e scientist and author John Jay Gould says in his book Dinosaur in a Haystack: "I have always felt sorry that America's old man missed the 1800s by less than three weeks (though I have no evidence that he cared
about such artificial milestones). I also confess to a feeling of privilege and pleasure that most of us will live to witness something even rarer the inception of a new millennium."
Gould says he does not believe in God, but this does not make him the sort of person who considers the birth of Jesus something unimportant, or who thinks that anniversaries don't matter.
Mind you, there are differences of opinion about when the new millennium should be celebrated. No one seriously thinks that Jesus was born on 1 January in the year 1 (which strictly should have been the year 0, making Jesus one in the year But there are quite a lot people arguing over whether 2000 or 2001 is when the new millennium really begins just as there were people arguing in 1699, 1799 and 1899 over when the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries ought to begin.
It is the sort of argument that can never be settled once and for all. All the same, as Catholics we can say that ancient and glorious tradition supports the backers of 2000 against the hackers of 2001.
It was the Catholic Church which first thought the world should celebrate the arrival of a new century Pope Boniface VIII announced (by popular acclaim, so we are told) that the year which opened the 14th Century should be a Jubilee Year, or Holy Year. And, as far as Pope Boniface was concerned, the year opening the 14th century was 1300, not 1301.
It was the first Holy Year in the Church's history, and Pope Boniface announced that one was to be celebrated every 100 years from then onwards. In the Lateran Basilica there is still the fragment of a fresco, supposedly by the artist Giotto, representing him listening to the reading of the Bull of declaration to the crowd.
So when Pope John Paul II announced in 1996 that the year 2000 (not 2001!) will be a Great Jubilee Year, "a year of peace and regeneration", he was not circulating an idea that had just come off the top of his head. He was conscious of being part of a 700 year-old tradition.
However, it is clear that the Pope considers that this Jubilee opening the Third Christian Millennium will be a'very special Holy Year.
r-rHE WORD "jubilee" comes from the Hebrew loyal or joel, meaning the year falling every 49th year in ancient Israel in which, according to the Law of Moses, the "shofar" was sounded. The "shofar" was the ram's horn sounded to herald the arrival of a year of peace and regeneration. The soil was to be left fallow, there was to be no harvest; property was to be redistributed, debts remitted and slaves set free.
The Jubilee Year was not only an occasion for reconciliation and forgiveness, but was also supposed to be an occasion for reestablishment of social justice. The Pope has had this ancient biblical teaching in mind in the guidance which he has given to the Catholics of the world on how hest to prepare for the Millennium and for the years ahead.
How the different local Churches of the world are in fact preparing for it varies to some extent, reflecting their individual needs.
We are living in a now very secular country with a cluster of substantial minorities of different faiths, and there have been quite sharp exchanges about whether Christianity should have any place at all in the Millennium Experience, the multimedia presentation which will fill most of the much-criticised Millennium Dome being built at Greenwich.
In a country where most of the population knows little about Christianity, will Christians prepare for the new Millennium best by preparing themselves spiritually? This is the thinking of many Christian leaders in this country, both Catholic and non-Catholic. For example, Bishop Victor Guazzelli, responsible for the Eastern area of the Westminster Archdiocese, is trying to bring the Angelus back into common usage.
Or will Christians best prepare for the Millennium by working for social justice? This can be done by, for example, helping the poorest nations of the world to be freed of their debts to the rich nations. In Britain this aim, which is close to the Pope's own heart, is the primary aim of the project Jubilee 2000. There is also the National Refugee Millennium Appeal, to assist the now grosslyoverstretched relief groups caring for asylum seekers in London and around ports of entry.
Or should we try to make that predominantly secular wider public more aware that the Millennium has something to do with Jesus Christ? This is the modest aim of the newly-launched project Herald 2000.
These three objectives are not in fact running in competition. After all, Christian mission, is supposed to stretai ,aut to three closely entangled yet distinct groups of people... ourselves, those in desperate need, and everybody else.