End Notes: The Next Thousand Years

1997 is the Year of Jesus Christ in the countdown toward 2000, the beginning of the third millennium. Pope John Paul II referred to this looming event often before devoting an Apostolic Letter to it in 1994. The letter might be translated into English: As the Third Millennium Draws Near; the original is Tertio millennio adveniente. The dactylic of the Latin suggests a measured drumbeat, a downbeat fanfare, whereas the anapestic English, ending in an iambic lilt, conveys expectation and hope.

This year is the Year of Jesus Christ; next year is the Year of the Holy Spirit; and 1999, the third and final year of preparation, is the Year of God the Father. Each is special. John Paul II clearly sees the coming millennium as a fresh thousand year stretch for mankind and a glorious new chapter in the history of salvation.

Historians will perhaps feel unease, remembering as they do the so-called millenarians who awaited the year 1000 with fear and trembling or with orgiastic insouciance. Surely the world would end in a year dubbed by a nice round number. Where on the spectrum that extends from seeking good poker hands in the serial numbers of dollar bills to thinking that everything has been worked out in advance and that fate has got our number, are we? And where, we might reverently ask, is the Holy Father?

After all, isn’t one year like another, however different the numbers we attach to them? And how different, after all, are numbers themselves? A number is just X times 1, and why should eleven ones together take on any different significance than ones taken randomly, one at a time? The obvious response is, “Consider a football team,” and this will remind philosophers of the distinction between “numbering number” and “numbered number.” The latter is the things we count — oranges, football players, the days before the wedding, the years that have passed since we saw Paris, until we meet again, and on and on. It is the things that are counted that count.

In his Apostolic Letter, the pope alludes to the moments in one’s personal life that are different from other moments, and the same is true of families, cities, countries, and the local chapter of the Control Canadian Geese society, marching into their hall—in high and careful step—on their fifth anniversary. To chuckle or disparage the attention being devoted to the coming millennium might indicate an inadequate grasp of the natural, rather than a cold eye for the supernatural.

The liturgical year moves in stately rhythm through the mysteries of our salvation, from Advent to Christmas to Lent and Easter and through the great stretch of ordinary time that ends with the end of the world. And then the cycle begins anew. Of course it is reenacted each week and each day. There is a passage in Walden Pond in which Thoreau describes how the railroads, with their exact schedules—the 2:15 the 8:42—whistled clock time and a calibrated day into the towns and hamlets of America. Mean time in Greenwich. Before there would have been the sidereal day: Dawn and noon and evening and definitive night. That was the day that was consecrated by the monastic Hours, with the church bell establishing Matins and Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, and None, the first, third, sixth, and ninth hours, followed by Vespers and finally Compline—nunc dimittis servum tuum, domine, secundum verhum tuum in pace.

What is consecrated is the day each of us lives, but each of us has his own liturgy, the celebration of rare and profound events. We can leaf through our baby books and see our Baptism recorded, we will have memories of our First Communion and Confirmation. As for our wedding, well, where better do we see the sublimation of the natural, the natural as the bearer of the sacred?

There are more private memories too. Men once remembered the day and the hour they got out of the service, and each, alas, recalls his own original sin, usually unoriginal, however it had to do with origins. The births of children, the reception of a degree, the first big job, the loss of a child, the death of parents—we would he flawed indeed if these days did not stand out from others in our memory, in our private liturgical year.

Christ was born in the fullness of time, the Holy Father reminds us. He is the hinge of history, but also the point of it all. There is neo-pagan resistance now, but our dates are still computed from that first Christmas. The year 2000 is already part of the Christian calendar.

Without motion, action, change, there is no time. Time is number applied to change. There are good times or bad times depending on what is going on, what we are doing or what is happening to us. And the pope reminds us that what we are caught up in willy-nilly is the time that measures the events of our salvation. Fated? Don’t count on it. The oddest thing about the underlying story that time measures is that, while we have no choice whether we play a part in it, our part will be happy only if our fragile will accepts the invitation to be forever united with God.

Apocalyptic? The end of the world? A little shiver at the thought is salutary, but the end of the world is not one of the Four Last things on which we are urged to meditate.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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