Reviving an ancient biblical practice for the Year of Mercy

The declaration by Pope Francis of the Jubilee of Mercy, to begin on Dec. 8, 2015, and end on Nov. 20, 2016, provides the whole church a glorious opportunity for prayerful preparation and reflection. Accordingly, an understanding of the scriptural context of the jubilee is useful. Chapter 25 of Leviticus records the Lord’s command that every seventh year Israel should neither plant nor prune their fields and vineyards, trusting that during this year the Lord would feed all of the people–both Israelite and non-Israelite—as well as the animals. Similar to the seventh day of rest during the week, this was known as the sabbath year.

After every seven sabbath years, also according to Leviticus, Israel was to practice a jubilee year. The jubilee was similarly a time to leave the fields fallow, but it was also a period of atonement, in which to forgive debts and to free those sold into slavery on account of debt. This 50th year of jubilee was an opportunity to restore social and physical conditions to a peaceful order more in keeping with the kingdom of God. It was meant to bring greater justice, redemption, liberation, safety and peace for the community, as well as rest for the land. The jubilee was truly a year of grace. Leviticus further describes the jubilee as a type of Exodus, that is, a divine liberation from slavery. Chapter 61 of Isaiah repeats this proclamation of a year of favor united with a promise of liberation. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses jubilee language to announce his own ministry. The Bible thus portrays the jubilee as good news—a visible sign of the Lord’s favor and a concrete practice of solidarity that helps to restore peace andwholeness to the faith community and to God’s creation.

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In light of Pope Francis’ declaration, the church is being called upon once more—in a formal and prayerful manner—to celebrate a jubilee as a way of growing together and being built up as a people of peace. Proclaiming and practicing the jubilee calls for deeply trusting the Lord who continually shows us his mercy and who provides us what we need. It is interesting to note that Francis’ declaration echoes both his 2015 message for the World Day of Peace and the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”

The gift and responsibility of jubilee is meant to be lived out within community. It is a matter not only for the individual disciple but also for the church, family, parish, religious community, Bible study, religious education program and prayer group. As the U.S. bishops pointed out in “Communities of Salt and Light,” the biblical call to mercy and peace claims each and every Christian but also each gathered community of believers. Practicing the jubilee should bind us more closely together as disciples of Jesus, the people of God and the body of Christ in the world. The upcoming year of mercy is an invitation for Catholics to come together around a shared goal. This means that it will be easier to observe the upcoming jubilee when we are united. As the time set by the pope grows closer, we may wish to begin a group Bible study about the jubilee, make it the focus of our family prayer, teach about it as part of sacramental preparation programs, bring it to our prayer groups and discuss it within our parishes and religious communities.

Living out the jubilee can and should be practiced locally as well as globally. We are part of local parishes in local communities but also essential members of the universal church. Every parish and every religious community—from the smallest to the largest, from the most vibrant to those that are struggling—can join together in practicing the jubilee and thus strengthen and support one another as communities. This can bind the entire church together more deeply in faith. During the approaching jubilee year, how can we deepen our solidarity within parishes, dioceses and the whole church? How might we get to know one another better as fellow parishioners? Is there a struggling parish, nearby or far away, that we can provide help and resources to?

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quickly extends his fulfillment of the jubilee beyond the borders of Israel. Pope Francis wisely and lovingly urges encounter and dialogue with other Christians and with those of other religions, including Judaism and Islam—even in spaces and situations of disagreement, struggle or outright conflict. With the declaration of this jubilee, the pope reminds the church that the Holy Spirit can bring unity in the midst of every tension and conflict. As we move toward the upcoming jubilee, whom might we be called—as Christian individuals and as communities—to reach out to? Is there someone in our family, a lonely neighbor, an isolated student or a solitary co-worker that we might approach in Christian fellowship? Whom can we seek out at the borders and margins? Where are the forgotten or even those we see as enemies? Francis is quite clear that Christ-like dialogue can open the door to understanding, healing, friendship and unity.

The pope teaches us that to become a people of peace is more a matter of time than of space or power. To understand salvation-time is to do what is right and to trust the Lord that good fruit will come. This calls for the virtues of patience and of hope. Grasping after space, control or power over others does not lead to liberation and peace. Paradoxically, letting these natural and understandable desires go, and trusting in the Lord’s grace and power, can lead to shalom.

This teaching of Francis is true also for the jubilee, which helps to redeem time, to make it holy. The weekly Sabbath, the sabbath year and the jubilee year consecrate time. The jubilee is thus a time of new beginnings, of new doors opening, of fresh opportunities to receive grace. How can we as disciples and communities better accept the offer of a fresh start from God and from others and in turn make this offer to others?

In the spirit of ecumenical dialogue, as noted above, we can learn about the jubilee from other Christians. The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, for example, wrote compellingly of the jubilee in terms of time, and of how Christians are to live in the world today. In his seminal text The Politics of Jesus, Yoder prudently pointed out that the jubilee is meant to be a periodic renewal, not a perpetual social upheaval. Every 50 years, Israel was called to remember the bountiful providence of God and the gift of liberation from slavery exemplified by the Exodus. We still need these periodic reminders, circumstances and practices that invite and enable us to restore a measure of mercy to a fallen world.

Proclaiming and practicing jubilee together, in our own space and time, and in a spirit of dialogue, propels the church toward conversion, witness and action.

Conversion. Francis appeals to Christians to firmly reject the false temptations of gossip, greed, violence and corruption and to move toward justice and mercy. Indulging in gossip makes the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation within the community that much more difficult. The jubilee therefore may also be a good time for Catholics to study deeply the ecclesial process of reconciliation laid out in Matthew 18. How can we help one another to make amends? Whom can we ask for help in restoring a broken relationship? The pope warns disciples against the lure of greed and encourages Christians to reject the idolatry of money that generates debt, exclusion and violence. Giving in to these temptations weakens and disfigures the body of Christ.

The sacramental life of prayer and worship, particularly in the Mass, helps Catholics turn away from these temptations and toward the Lord. The jubilee can also become an opportunity to renew both personal and parish commitments to the sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament is personal—between penitent and God, with the help of a priest—but is best sustained within a life-giving community of Christians, who can invite, nurture and encourage the practice of forgiveness and the accompanying acts of penance and restitution. As the jubilee approaches, how can we increase our own resolve to regularly participate in the sacrament of reconciliation? How can we help our family, friends and fellow parishioners to do the same? Are we as Catholics helping one another to practice forgiveness?

Witness. The jubilee is an invitation to witness to the forgiveness rooted in the cross and resurrection. We can forgive because we have been forgiven. This too can become easier, or at least less hard, when we are part of a close community of Christians. The example, support, encouragement and even demands of other Christians are essential. The forgiveness shown by the Amish community in Nickel Mines after a shooting in the schoolhouse there is one instructive example of a communal orientation to the practice of reconciliation and mercy that has also inspired others.

Furthermore, Pope Francis reminds the church and individual Christians that we are to publicly proclaim the liberation of slaves—which in our day includes exploited laborers, migrants, those forced into prostitution, child soldiers and the victims of kidnapping. In this way, the church becomes a needed and timely sign of Christ’s mercy to and in the world. The church can put a spotlight on the darkness of slavery and structural injustice and call for greater justice. Coming together, Christians can take action to end such slavery—by working for economic and labor justice, for example, the protection of vulnerable children and the just treatment of immigrants.

Action. The jubilee is not meant to be an abstract idea but a concrete practice of love. For Christians, this centers on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as illustrated so beautifully by the vision of hospitality to the poor lived out by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. How might we as families and parishes practice the works of mercy in our surrounding communities?

To draw once more upon ecumenical dialogue, John Howard Yoder in For the Nations wrote of the jubilee as incarnating new ways of using possessions and power. This idea remains a valid challenge for the church today. Do we serve our possessions or use them to serve others? Do we pursue power or do we seek the lowest place and to be the servant of those in need? Even our day-to-day decisions about what we buy or how we spend our time can provide opportunities to help others.

Rooted in humble obedience and divine trust, the jubilee allows Christians and Christian communities to forgive debts, economic and otherwise. Various Christian groups, for example, have tried offering interest-free micro-loans as one way of lessening the crushing burden of debt. As Christian individuals, families and parishes, what would it take for us to forgive debts or to lend to one another without interest, even in small amounts? The forgiveness of debt speaks also to the sins we commit, as we learn in praying the Our Father at every Mass. The practice of jubilee is an opportunity for us, hurt by the actions of others and hurting others with our actions, to be strengthened: to cease sinning, to accept forgiveness and to forgive one another as we have been forgiven by God. Who are those people against whom we have harbored resentments? With whom do we want to be able to celebrate the jubilee? The year of mercy can become an opportunity to go beyond our usual limits, and to forgive 70 times seven times.

Children of God

As we begin the Jubilee of Mercy, let us renew our commitment to Christian community, deepening our ties to fellow disciples. Let us prepare ourselves to accept forgiveness from others and begin to seek out those to whom we can show mercy and forgiveness. This is a time, as individuals and as communities, to begin discerning areas in our lives in which we need conversion. May we see this jubilee year as an invitation to put our possessions and power into carrying out works of mercy. In these and so many other ways, the upcoming jubilee will be a joyful opportunity for Christians to practice mercy, which is a sure sign that we are God’s children.

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