As the year 2000 approaches, the media will be offering us every imaginable interpretation of the millennium. Like seeds whose future blossoms will fall on all of us at the midnight hour of January 1, 2000, these emerging notions of the exciting all-in-one-turn of the year, the decade, the century and the millennium may soon be fixed in our minds. Perhaps before their inevitable influence becomes too big to control, we might ask as to their meanings. Indeed, a critical awareness of their roots now may even help to shape celebrations they bring tomorrow..
The millennium--as reckoned on the Gregorian calendar--is essentially a Christian concept. After all, it is the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus which is celebrated: the coming into the world of a Jewish teacher whose life and teaching has transformed the West in general. But five years from now, Jews will celebrate merely the year 5760, while other religious will continue to observe time according to their own schemes. How is it possible, then, in a culturally and religiously pluralistic society such as that of the United States, to expect anything like unanimity of soul on such an occasion? Chinese and Muslim observants will politely engage the new year and its millennial trappings. But is there a common heart for celebration amongst the diversity of peoples, cultures and beliefs governed by a civil calendar whose foundations are unabashedly Christian?
Surely a starting point for common reflection between Christian and non-Christian alike is to pause as the twentieth century ends and to ask a simple question: What have we learned over the last one hundred years? No one can escape noticing that our century has begun and ended with the same Balkan conflict, Shots first fired in Sarajevo are still echoing there today. Ethnic cleansing has become a byword for racist extermination of every kind. Indeed, the twentieth century has been thematized by the brutal murder of at least 100 million people through one kind of Bolshevist-Nazi-Fascist-Communist philosophy or other. The Holocaust marked a unique moment of total pagan evil, the killing of six million Jews in the midst of Christian Europe. The elimination of entire peoples through the industrialization of death is the distinctive signature of this century. With two world wars and innumerable local conflicts on every continent, is there not a sad but unifying experience here which can aptly serve as a starting point for a religious reflection on the meaning of the millennium, specifically, the meaning of evil?
The central message of Christianity is that God redeems humanity through the service of Jesus. Perhaps it is this notion of religious service which should characterize our intentions as we pause before the break of a new century and a new millennium. How is every religion--but especially Christianity whose influence on the West is profound--prepared to renew its belief in the divine service which originally inspired it? Clearly at this juncture both Jewish and Christian interests in the significance of the turn-of-the-century (and of the millennium) coincide in two ways: (1) the hope of redemption from nearly unspeakable evils of this century, and (2) an exchange of commitments to work towards a more just, more prayerful and more open relationship, avoiding contempt or discrimination against each other in any form.
In his recent papal letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul II proposes several unexpected ways in which to observe the millennium. One in particular regards the suggestion that in 1999, as a preparatory event to the millennial observance itself, Christians, Jews and Muslims should consider whether it is possible to hold "joint meetings in places of significance for the great monotheistic religions." This is a beautiful dream and one which, if realized, could project an extraordinary message to the world. The Pope goes on to suggest that Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mount Sinai might be exceptionally symbolic locations in this regard. …