THOUGHTS ON THE MILLENNIUM

DECEMBER 12, 1999
R.M. FEWKES


The Norwell post office has a sizable electronic computerized sign, which counts down the days, hours, seconds and mini-seconds to the turning of the millennium. Every time I go to our P.O. Box to pick up the mail I pause and look at the sign with the mini-seconds flashing by at a fast moving clip as we race toward the magical moment when the calendar changes from 1999 to 2000. It is hard to believe that we are only 20 days away from the beginning of a new-year, a new century, and a new millennium. I can remember calculating in my mind every so many years ago that I would be 63 years old when that far distant change in our calendar would come to be. I just turned 63 at 10:00 A.M. yesterday, December 11. I’ve decided that there must be some mistake. I can’t be that old. I’m only 53 and the millennium is still a decade away. But no, the post office keeps reminding me that it is in fact 1999 and the millennium is fast approaching the witching hour.

This approaching change in our dating system has provoked an awful lot of intense concern about what it all means, and what it portends for the future of the planet and the human race. Some of this concern is religious and borders on the lunatic fringe of spiritual insanity, some of it is more tempered and is concerned about spiritual and ethical transformation of both soul and society. Some of it is clearly secular and is concerned about potential computer system failures on a national and international scale—Y2K and all that—or the dangers of global warming, deforestation, or a nuclear accident or conflict. What changes, natural or supernatural, will the millennium bring? What, if anything, can we do about it?

In my Pre-Millennial sermon last January I noted that most of the world uses the calendar of the Common Era, 1999 C.E., for everyday discourse and communication, rather than the Christian designation of 1999A.D. (Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, meaning the years that have elapsed since the birth of Jesus). We now know that the Gregorian calendar of 1582, miscalculated the year of Jesus' birth by four to six years, which means that the millennium by all rights should have begun in 1994 or '96 depending on whether Jesus was born in 4 or 6 B.C. I also noted there are some religious and cultural traditions that use other dates and calendars. The year 2000 in the ancient Hebrew calendar will be the year 5761, the Islamic calendar will be 1421, the Buddhist calendar in Southeast Asia 1362, the Zoroastrian calendar 2390, and the old Chinese calendar 4698 the Year of the Dragon. It all depends on your frame of reference.

The use of the designation "the Year of our Lord", A.D., was in fact established not by Pope Gregory, XIII, in 1582, but by a little known monk named Dionysius Exiguus, about 500 A.D. It was he who proposed a new calendar, dating it from the coming of Jesus, rather than the year of a particular Roman or other secular ruler of the day. In the Dionysiun calendar New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25th, the presumed day on which Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, otherwise known as the Feast of the Annunciation. Many of the ancient Roman rulers, you will remember, had the gall to designate themselves as gods, and to demand not only obedience from their subjects, but worship as well. That was too much for Christians to swallow and so they refused. Many of them were persecuted and martyred for their refusal, as were the Jews before them, who would give worship only to Yahweh Adonai, the Lord God. By changing the calendar to Anno Domini Christians were saying that no Roman or secular ruler was equal to God or above the God they believed was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. They affirmed instead that Jesus, not Ceasar, was the Lord of history.

Without getting into the Trinitarian-Unitarian controversy about whether and to what degree Jesus was human or divine, we can indeed affirm that no secular or political leader of any nation is above God or the law, or above the ideals of justice and righteousness which apply to all human beings. That’s a very good thing to keep in mind as we approach another presidential primary season and election in the year 2000. None of the candidates out there are anywhere near equal to God, nor should we expect them to be, nor are any of them likely to be perfect models of the ideal husband or father. The apparent need to idealize our political or religious leaders needs to be tempered with the reality of our all too human nature, lest our leaders, or their followers, lay overblown expectations upon us. Otherwise, Clinton fatigue will soon be followed by Gore or Bradley or Bush or McCain fatigue, depending on whom, if any of them, are eventually elected.

The word millennium derives from the Latin mille (thousand) and ennium (annual or yearly), thus a thousand years. Among conservative and fundamentalist Christians the Millennium refers not to a specific calendar date, but rather to the thousand-year reign of perfect peace and justice on earth that will occur just before or after the Second Coming of Christ. It all depends on whether you are a premillennialist or a postmillennialist Christian, not to mention a dispensationalist. If you are a premillennialist you hold that the Millennium cannot begin until the Second Coming of Christ has actually happened. If you are a postmillennialist you hold to the belief that Jesus will not return until just after the Millennium has been completed. If you are a dispensationalist you believe that all the unfulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament will come true at last during the thousand-year reign of peace and justice. All of these millennial views are based on the belief that God’s kingdom will come, and God‘s will be done, "on earth as it is in heaven."

The problem with the views of millennial Christians is that they are always trying to
Psych-out the Lord and to read the signs of the times that indicate the Second Coming is about to happen. They’ve been trying to do that for 2,000 years and they’ve always been mistaken. First century Christians thought it would happen in their lifetimes. It did not happen. A thousand years ago at the advent of the first millennium, the Archbishop of York urged his flock to repent before the Day of Judgment arrived. We have no record of whether they repented or not, but we do know that Judgment Day was postponed yet again. The German Emperor, Otto III, told his people in 1,000 A.D., "The last year of the thousand years is here, and now I go out in the desert to await, with fasting, prayer and penance the day of the Lord and the coming of my Redeemer." We do not know how long the Emperor waited and prayed in the desert, but I suspect that eventually he went back to assume his throne and to engage in the business of "emperoring" again. Judgment Day would have to wait for the next millennium, or thereabouts. Back in the 1840s the Millerites, a Millennial sect, calculated that the Lord would return on a specific day in 1843. They went up into the hills and waited for the event to happen. The Lord didn’t come, so they recalculated a different date a few months or years later. It didn’t happen. Wrong again. The Seventh Day Adventists are their religious descendants, and they are still waiting.

Millennialism is invariably joined with so-called apocalypticism, the belief that the inequities of human history will finally be resolved by supernatural intervention. God and his Messiah will return on the clouds of heaven and set all things aright. The devil will be bound and chained and thrown into the lake of fire along with all those who have followed a sinful and evil path. It sounds very much like a Greek morality play in which the plot is finally resolved not by the characters themselves, but by the intervention of the gods, a dues ex machina. It hasn’t happened that way yet, and it never will. But these folks never give up their attempt to predict the unpredictable or to force God’s hand. Israeli authorities these days are keeping a close watch on fanatical religious visitors who are intent on provoking a violent episode in fulfillment of some obscure apocalyptic Biblical prophecy in hopes of bringing about the Second Coming. It is difficult for us as Unitarian Universalists to find ourselves in any of these millennial religious fantasies. They do not speak to our condition and we cannot derive any inspiration from them except to breath a sigh of relief when the Second Millennium is finally over and the millennialists are forced back to the drawing board to recalculate.

What about the secular version of the millennium—the Y2K changeover from year ’99 to year’00 in our now thoroughly computerized culture? This Y2K computer change has fueled paranoid visions of the end of Western civilization. Social Security checks will stop. Supermarkets will no longer receive food orders. Hospital and medical technology will fail. People will die on the operating table. Automobiles and airplanes will cease functioning with the latter falling out of the sky. Electrical utility sources will shut down. Missiles and rockets carrying nuclear warheads will be launched against an imagined enemy. The government will impose martial law and take away our constitutional freedoms. There was a made for television movie about this very thing a few weeks ago. I watched a few brief clips from the movie just to see what it was like. It was so awful I had to switch channels rather than endure this secular apocalyptic fantasy with bad actors.

It was a disaster of a disaster movie. The religious counterpart to that disaster movie is a film entitled, "End of Days", about the final confrontation with the devil—our hero, Arnold Schwarzeneger, saves the day. The reviews of this movie have been so bad that I decided I could save myself from having to sit through yet another disaster of a disaster movie. This is obviously Hollywood’s attempt to make a buck on apocalyptic millennium fear. My advice to you is, if you want to be saved, you can begin by saving your money by not going to see "End of Days."

Is this Y2K business just another tempest in a teapot, or had we better pay attention, hunker down in our bunkers, and stockpile food, water and weapons for a global electronic Titanic disaster? I suspect neither. There will certainly be some glitches and power failures here and there, none I suspect that won't be repairable in a reasonable period of time, but western civilization is not about to end up on the ash heap because of a calendar change from 1999 to 2000. The Russians and Chinese and some Third World nations will no doubt have a more difficult time of it than we will. But eventually, they as well as we, will have to get on with the business of living in a Y2K world and all the changes and transformations that living in this new Information Age will bring.

I got a big kick out of a recent humorous piece in TIME magazine by columnist, Christopher Buckley. Buckley declares that our big worry should not be about computer bugs or failures, but rather about PMS (Post-Millennial Syndrome)—the feeling of disappointment over having been worked up into a frenzy over next to nothing. It is also, he says, "the deflation of not having anything to look forward to other than the Presidents’ Day mattress sale", or "the next installment of the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it—such as the prospect of Donald Trump’s becoming President." He queries—"We get only one year with triple zeroes, what are we going to do for an encore?" The "bright side" of PMS is that "in just a few more weeks, no more articles about the millennium." We’ll all have millennium fatigue and will be ready to move on.

Of course, we all know that the making and keeping of calendars, is a human invention. Nature keeps no calendar and God, however you conceive that power of being that brought us all into existence, lives in the dimension of the eternal, except for a brief incarnational interlude if the Christian myth be taken literally. I want to conclude my sermon with some thoughts from my sermon of last January. I can’t say it any better now than I did then.

The ancient Greeks had two concepts of time and history. One was chronos, or chronological time, the time that can be measured on a clock, tracked on a calendar, projected on a linear time line. This is the time of learned history, dates, and events, which can be accounted for and even planned. Jesus was born in 6 B.C. The stock market crashed in October 1929. World War II ended in 1945. I turned 63 on the 11th of December. This past week the church office mailed the final issue of the SPIRE for 1999. This is the time of chronos, and we wear it on our wrists, read about it in the newspaper, watch it on television, write it in our checkbooks.

But the Greeks had a second concept of time, which they called kairos, which means the right time, or a time of opportunity, a time of great meaning and significance or challenge. A birthday, an anniversary, a memorial, graduation, marriage, sexual intimacy, giving birth, a job change or a promotion, climbing a mountain, planting roses, being caught up in the beauty of art or music, feeling a connection with God and others in church or in nature--such events and experiences can be kairotic, fraught with meaning, filled with wonder and purpose, turning ordinary time into extraordinary time, transforming chronos into kairos. I shared such a moment with a family yesterday morning as I Christened their infant son, Jake Theo Ten Eyck, the Great-grandson of Eleanor and Dick Gaudette. Tears of joy came into the eyes of Jake’s parents as they spoke about how their connection with this new life and new person had utterly changed and transformed them. It was a truly kairotic moment.

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was a kairotic moment for his parents, Joseph and Mary, and eventually for the course of western civilization which was changed and transformed by the impact of his life and teachings. How can we become the instruments of kairotic change in our world as Jesus was for his world? How can we turn our chronos into kairos?

That's what I think the hoopla and concern about the year 2000 and the millennium is really all about. We are seeking an ultimate meaning to our existence behind the changing and transitory nature of our time and history. We are creatures of chronos who hunger for kairos. As we approach the greatest chronological change since the beginning of the first millennium in the year 1000, we ask ourselves, what is the meaning of the human venture on this planet among the stars? What can we do with the time God has given us to make this global village into a haven of love and peace and friendship?

This is the challenge that awaits us in the coming millennium and in all the days and years yet to come. May we welcome the challenge of those years with courage, hope and determination, to better serve our God, our dreams, and one another. So be it. Amen.