Edited extracts from the apostolic letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente
JOHN, IN THE prologue of his Gospel, captures in one phrase all the depth of the mystery of the Incarnation. He writes: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (1:14). For John, the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, of one being with the Father, took place in the conception and birth of Jesus.
The fact that in the fullness of time the Eternal Word took on the condition of a creature gives a unique cosmic value to the event which took place in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Thanks to the Word, the world of creatures appears as a "cosmos", an ordered universe. And it is the same Word who, by taking flesh, renews the cosmic order of creation.
This "becoming one of us" on the part of the Son of God took place in the greatest humility, so it is no wonder that secular historians, caught up by more stirring events and by famous personages, first made only passing, albeit significant, references to him.
But the great event which non-Christian historians merely mention in passing takes on its full significance in the writings of the New Testament. These writings, although documents of faith, are no less reliable as historical testimonies, if we consider their references as a whole. Christ, true God and true man, the Lord of the cosmos, is also the Lord of history, of which he is "the Alpha and the Omega" (Rev 1:8; 21:6), "the beginning and the end".
Jesus does not in fact merely speak "in the name of God" like the prophets, but he is God himself speaking in his Eternal Word made flesh. Here we touch upon the essential point by which Christianity differs from all the other religions, by which man's search for God has been expressed from earliest times. Christianity has its startingpoint in the Incarnation of the Word. Here, it is not simply a case of man seeking God, but of God who comes in person to speak to man of himself and to show him the path by which he may be reached.
Speaking of the birth of the Son of God, St Paul places this event in the "fullness of time" (cf. Gal 4:4). In Christianity time has a fundamental importance. Within the dimension of time the world was created; within it the history of salvation unfolds, finding its culmination in the "fullness of time" of the Incarnation, and its goal in the glorious return of the Son of God at the end of time. In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, time becomes a dimension of God, who is himself eternal. From this relationship of God with time there arises the duty to sanctify time. In the liturgy of the Easter Vigil the celebrant, as he blesses the candle which symboli,..es the Risen Christ, proclaims: "Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to him, and all the ages, to him be glory and power through every age for ever". He says these words as he inscribes on the candle the numerals of the current year.
AGAINST THIS BACKGROUND, we can understand the custom of Jubilees, which began in the Old Testament and continues in the history of the Church. Jesus of Nazareth, going back one day to the synagogue of his home town, stood up to read (cf. Lk 4:16-30). Taking the book of the prophet Isaiah, he read this passage: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour" (61:1-2).
The words and deeds of Jesus thus represent the fulfilment of the whole tradition of Jubilees in the Old Testament. As we read in Leviticus: "You shall hallow the 50th year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family" (25:10).
What needs to be emphasised is what Isaiah expresses in the words "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour". For the Church, the Jubilee is precisely this "year of the Lord's favour", a year of the remission of sins and of the punishments due to them, a year of reconciliation between disputing parties, a year of manifold conversions and of sacramental and extra-sacramental penance. On these occasions, the Church proclaims "a year of the Lord's favour", and she tries to ensure that all the faithful can benefit from this grace.
Hence the year 2000 will be celebrated as the Great Jubilee. With regard to its content, this Great Jubilee will be, in a certain sense, like any other. But at the same time it will be different, greater than any other. For the Church respects the measurements of time: hours, days, years, centuries. She thus goes forward with every individual, helping everyone to realise how each of these measurements of time is imbued with the presence of God and with his saving activity.
IT CANNOT BE DENIED that, for many Christians, the spiritual life is passing through a time of uncertainty which affects not only their moral life but also their life of prayer and the theological correctness of their faith. Faith, already put to the test by the challenges of our times, is sometimes disoriented by erroneous theological views, the spread of which is abetted by the crisis of obedience vis-à-vis the Church's Magisterium.
And with respect to the Church of our time, how can we not lament the lack of discernment, which at times became even acquiescence, shown by many Christians concerning the violation of fundamental human rights by totalitarian regimes? And should we not also regret, among the shadows of our own day, the responsibility shared by so many Christians for grave forms of injustice and exclusion? It must be asked how many Christians really know and put into practice the principles of the Church's social doctrine.
An examination of conscience must also consider the reception given to the Council, this great gift of the Spirit to the Church at the end of the second millennium. To what extent has the word of God become more fully the soul of theology and the inspiration of the whole of Christian living, as Dei Verbum sought? Is the liturgy lived as the "origin and summit" of ecclesial life, in accordance with the teaching of Sacrosanctum Concilium? In the universal Church and in the particular Churches, is the ecclesiology of communion described in Lumen Gentium being strengthened? Does it leave room for charisms, ministries, and different forms of participation by the People of God, without adopting notions borrowed from democracy and sociology which do not reflect the Catholic vision of the Church and the authentic spirit of Vatican II?
Another serious question is raised by the nature of relations between the Church and the world. The Council's guidelines, set forth in Gaudium et Spes and other documents, of open, respectful and cordial dialogue, yet accompanied by careful discernment and courageous witness to the truth, remain valid and call us to a greater commitment.
THE CHURCH HAS ENDURED for 2,000 years. Like the mustard seed in the Gospel, she has grown and become a great tree, able to cover the whole of humanity with her branches (cf. Mt 13:31-32). The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, thus addresses the question of membership in the Church and the call of all people to belong to the People of God: "All are called to be part of this Catholic unity of the new People of God... And there belong to it or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful as well as all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, which by the grace of God is called to salvation".(35) In conclusion, it is helpful to recall the words of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes: "The Church believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through his Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny... The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are so many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and for ever."
While I invite the faithful to raise to the Lord fervent prayers to obtain the light and assistance necessary for the preparation and celebration of the forthcoming Jubilee, I exhort my Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and the ecclesial communities entrusted to them to open their hearts to the promptings of the Spirit. He will not fail to arouse enthusiasm and lead people to celebrate the Jubilee with renewed faith and generous participation.