The origin of our understanding of a Jubilee year has its roots in the story of the Exodus and God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai.
God spoke to Moses and gave him instructions on how the people were to live when they entered the Promised Land. One of those instructions was that God’s people should keep sacred time, days and even years which were to be set aside for the Lord. As well as the weekly Sabbath, the People of Israel were to keep a Jubilee which was to be observed every fifty years.
In the Book of Leviticus we read: ‘When you enter the land which I am giving you … the fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you’ (leviticus 25).
This year was to be a year of restorative justice and mercy. The Jubilee year was to be a time set aside for God and for the things of God. It was a deeply practical year. When at the beginning of the holy year the ram’s horn (the jobel) was sounded ownership of land was shared out anew amongst the people, bonded servants had to be freed, debts were to be remitted, and justice restored all through the land. This set in the hearts of the People of Israel the hope that the Lord’s year of favour would come not just every fifty years but definitively. The people were promised a Messiah, a Saviour, who would inaugurate this year of the Lord.
When Jesus began to preach he explicitly places himself and his ministry within the tradition of the Jubilee. After his baptism in the Jordan we read how Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and begins to preach.
“Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.’
He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.’ ” (luke 4:16-21).
This is precisely the meaning of the Jubilee that Pope Francis calls us to, not just a cerebral understanding of mercy which remains only in our heads but an embrace of God’s redemptive love which in turn converts us and makes us merciful towards others. It is sometimes suggested that the Old Testament Jubilee year was a time of action whereas the Christian Jubilee is a more ‘spiritual’ celebration. This is not the intention of Pope Francis’ Jubilee of Mercy which is calling us to encounter and experience anew the merciful love of the Lord and so bring that love to others. As Pope Francis writes:
“ A ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ or ‘mercy’: this is what the Lord proclaimed and this is what we wish to live now. This Holy Year will bring to the fore the richness of Jesus’ mission echoed in the words of the prophet: to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who can see no more because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed. ”
Are there ways in which I need to hear anew the good news of salvation?
How can I enter into this Jubilee Year?
Does this Jubilee Year offer me a chance to experience God’s salvation in new ways?