Many revelers who rang in the New Year as 1999 turned into 2000 believed they were celebrating the beginning of a new millennium. Purists insist that the event doesn't occur until next New Year's Eve.
But for the Vatican, the third millennium of Christianity officially began on Christmas Eve, when Pope John Paul II opened the Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica to inaugurate the beginning of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
For the Roman Catholic Church, the beginning of its third millennium is not an event to be feared as a day of judgment and apocalypse. Rather, the pope has declared that 2000 is a Holy Year and a jubilee, marked by celebrations and spiritual practices aimed at reconciliation and renewal.
"The whole sense of end of the world or apocalyptic vision is not part of the Catholic vision," says Paul Henderson, coordinator of the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops' Office for the Millennium and Jubilee Year 2000. "It's a year of great rejoicing because it celebrates 2000 years of Christianity, give or take a few years, depending on how one reads the calendar."
A jubilee, also known as a Holy Year, is a momentous church celebration held every 25 years or when there is an extraordinary event to be commemorated.
But where did the notion of jubilee come from, and what is its significance?
The jubilee is closely related to the concept of the sabbatical year, both with roots in the traditions of ancient Israel as recorded in the Bible.
In three places in the Hebrew scriptures, it is inscribed that every seventh year shall be a sabbatical. During that year, slaves are to be freed, debts forgiven and the land is allowed to lie fallow, in a tradition emphasizing that everything -- the land and all its inhabitants -- belongs to God.
In the book of Leviticus, chapter 25, it is written:
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
After seven sabbatical cycles have passed, Israel was instructed to observe a Jubilee year.
Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month -- the Day of Atonement -- you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: Each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
Those biblical passages were written when Israel was an agrarian society. As it began to develop a market economy, with the rise of a merchant class, it became more difficult to adhere literally to the sabbatical and the jubilee.
"As early as the first century, rabbis were finding ways to mitigate it," says Steven Fine, associate professor of rabbinic literature and history at Baltimore Hebrew University. "You can't live in an international market economy with such a peculiar, arcane system."
For example, land could be temporarily sold to a non-Jew, who could work it, and then sold back after the sabbatical year was over. Jews continue to struggle with how to live out these biblical precepts. For example, some strictly observant Jews living on kibbutzim have experimented with growing produce hydroponically.
"Jews have never stopped sabbaticalling and jubileeing," Fine says. "The question is how."
The concept of the jubilee was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in 1300, when Pope Boniface VII proclaimed a year of forgiveness of sins for pilgrims who came to Rome, confessed their sins and visited the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul daily for 15 days (residents had to make the visits for 30 days). In return, the pilgrims would receive an indulgence, releasing them from the earthly punishments for sins they had confessed.
In that era of war, disease and pestilence, medieval Christians felt a great fear of eternal punishment and bore a heavy sense of burden over their perceived sinfulness. In that context, the jubilee, or Holy Year, proclaimed by Boniface was a great success, attracting more than 200,000 pilgrims, including Dante Alighieri, who wrote of it in his "Divine Comedy."
Boniface decreed that the jubilee year should be observed by the church every 100 years. But Pope Clement VI acceded to popular demand for another jubilee, and proclaimed 1350 as a Holy Year. A subsequent pope shortened the interval to 33 years to commemorate the years of Jesus' life, and that was later shortened to 25 years, the interval during which ordinary Holy Years are celebrated today.