Certain rituals mark the arrival of every new year. Critics deliver their “best of” and “worst of” lists, appraising the previous year's films, books, television, theater, sporting events, and so on. These days, even websites come under the scrutiny of the pundits. A new year also marks the time when most of us turn a critic's eye on our own lives. We reflect on goals attained, certainly, but most of us spend more time mulling over our failings. The nearly universal practice of this self-evaluation probably makes it less painful—misery loves company—and with a clean slate, ambitious goals can be set again and taken on with a renewed sense of hope.
Apart from the usual taking stock at year's end—and the subsequent pledges to eat better and exercise more, to be more patient with children and spouses, to watch less TV and read better books, to develop a richer prayer life—the dawn of 1997 seems to call for something more. As the end of the millennium comes barreling down upon us, some are beginning to get a sense of being ill-prepared for the truly wondrous event awaiting us just around the bend: the 2,000th anniversary of Christianity. Nearly two years ago, John Paul II, in recognizing the need to thoroughly prepare, issued his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente as a sort of guide to getting ready for the Jubilee. The first phase, which he defined as the ante-preparatory stage, ended last week with the closing of 1996.
Since the November 1994 release of the letter, a significant amount of attention has been paid to Jubilee issues. Most of it though has centered on material concerns. Stories addressing the controversial designs of new churches being built for the celebration or the logistics of handling the onslaught of pilgrims expected to converge on Rome and on the Holy Land have appeared in secular and religious newspapers and magazines. Though the media gravitates to such stories of “impending disaster” spiced with a sampling of finger-pointing, there have also been reports that feature high points related to the Jubilee year, most recently Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's invitation to John Paul to kick off the celebrations with a visit to the Holy Land at Christmas 1999.
Less has been written about the spiritual preparations for the Jubilee, though that, of course, is the essence of the Pope's apostolic letter. The second phase of his plan, which began with the arrival of 1997 and carries through to the dawning of the millennium, is built on a Trinitarian theme with each year dedicated to reflection on one person of the Triune God. 1997 is given to contemplation and a new appreciation of Jesus Christ. Reflecting on Jesus throughout the year, and especially as we draw up our New Year's goals—fiercely important to us, but ultimately a grain of sand in the grand scheme—makes perfect sense. As John Paul wrote in Tertio: “Jesus Christ is the new beginning of everything. In him all things come into their own; they are taken up and given back to the Creator from whom they first came.”
Appropriate as it is at the personal level, a Christ-centered year seems even more urgent scaled-up to the societal level and beyond. On the brink of the millennium, the world is badly in need of renewal. Terrorism, fratricide, child labor, starvation, slavery and the other tragedies that have marked mankind's history remain with us. Purely human solutions to these problems have failed us unfailingly. The Church too has had a hard going of it, torn from without by those critical of its role in the world, and from within by members convinced that fashioning a Church that neatly conforms to their personal vision is the solution to all its human problems.
So where is Christ in all this, and where to begin a reflection on him that will give rise to our sorely needed renewal? In his most recent book, A View from the Ridge: The Testimony of a Twentieth-Century Christian, Australian author Morris West offers a good starting point in a brief reflection on the Word made Flesh: “Our Lord did not invent the codex of canon law,” he writes. “He did not dictate the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. He sat upon a hillside, perched himself in a rocking boat just off the beach. He spoke in the synagogues and in the houses of the people. The images he used were simplest images of rural life: flowers and sheep and grain and weed growing among wheat. He taught his followers to acknowledge the unknown God as ‘Father.’I have felt very often that we Christians have divided ourselves because we have tried to elaborate too much upon the majestic simplicity of the message given to us.”
A return to that simple message and to what John Paul calls “a deep desire for conversion and personal renewal” fueled by “intense prayer and solidarity with one's neighbor,” promises to awaken hope in world-weary journeyers as they ready themselves for the great Jubilee year.