SOME PRE-MILLENNIAL
RUMINATIONS

JANUARY 3, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

I can remember, after beginning my ministry in the spring of the 1969, thinking ahead to some key dates in the future, wondering where I would be and what kind of world would exist. I thought of 1984 and George Orwell's famous dystopian novel about a totalitarian state in which "Big Brother Is Watching You" and your every movement. 1984 seemed a long ways off, fifteen years in the future, lots of time, not to worry. And then some years later in the mid 70s there was a science fiction T.V. series entitled "Space 1999" about a colony on the moon that struggles to survive after a nuclear destruction of the earth. I watched and enjoyed every episode, but the year 1999 was so far into the future that it just didn't seem like it could ever be real, anymore than that sci- fi series about a lost colony on the moon was real.

Of course, the really big date I thought about was the magical mysterious year 2000, the start of a new millennium, in which I noted to myself, that I would be 63 years old at the time. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a famous novel (made into a movie) 2001 which fantasized what the world would be like at the beginning of the millennium--men and women living on the moon, the discovery of a strange obelisk left behind by an alien civilization, a manned space flight to Jupiter, super-intelligent computers that talk and play chess, etc. All of those dates seemed an eternity away and I never imagined that at such times I would still be minister of the First Parish in Norwell. Well, 1984 has come and gone, 1999 is here and real and I'm still minister in Norwell, and the year 2000 is just under a year away. How did that happen? How did I get here? And what happened to all those years? I don't know. I'm just as flabbergasted as you that we've come all this way together.

There's something about approaching the year 2000 with all those zeroes that captures the mind and imagination. The transition from the year 1999 to 2000 represents the end and beginning of a new year, a new decade, a new century, and a new millennium--one year, ten years, a hundred years, a thousand years! That is awesome to contemplate! How do you sum up the highlights, the best and the worst, of a millennium, a century, much less a decade? I won't attempt that in this sermon. I'll save that for next year.

If the end of the decade in which we are now living is called the decade of the 90s what will we call the first decade of the new millennium? Some people have suggested "the Aughties", "the Double-0s", "the Thousands", "the Zeroes", even "the Zots". In 1983 the TIMES came out in favor of "the Ohs." What's your favorite? Do you care? Pope John Paul II is declaring the beginning of the millennium as a Jubilee year. Jubilee is a time of forgiveness, forgiving debts and debtors, giving one another a new start, celebrating the gift of life with joy and generosity of sharing. May it be so.

The word millennium derives from the Latin mille (thousand) and ennium (annual or yearly), thus a thousand years. Of course, the making and keeping of calendars, is a human invention. Nature keeps no calendar and God lives in the dimension of the eternal except for a brief incarnational interlude if the Christian myth be taken literally. Most scholars and historians these days refer to our time as 1999 C.E. (meaning of the Common Era) rather than the Christian designation A.D. (Anno Domini, the year of our Lord). But C.E. or A.D. the reason for our use of calling this the year 1999 relates to the date or year in which Jesus of Nazareth was presumably born. We now know that the Gregorian calendar, which was established by Pope Gregory XIII in 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., but that's beside the point, if there is a point.

Most of the world uses the calendar of the Common Era, C.E., for everyday discourse and communication, but there are still some religious and cultural traditions which 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 Gregorian calendar was supposed to make corrections and improvements on the Julian calendar which had been introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. The Julian calendar had estimated that it took 365.25 days for the earth to circle the sun in the course of a year. The Julian calendar even considered the need for leap years and was only about a hundredth of a day off in its calculations. After 1500 or so years those fractions began to add up and folks started to notice that spring was arriving in the wheatfields sooner than expected. So in order to have the calendar catch up with the seasons the Gregorian commission decided to drop ten days off the 1582 calendar--that was the year that people went to sleep on Oct. 4 and woke up on Oct. 15. They also decided to eliminate leap years in years ending in 00 with the exception "of years divisible by 400, which is why the year 2000 will be The First Century Leap Year since 1600." (Gail and Dan Collins, Millennium Book, p. 9)

A number of Protestant countries, "suspecting a papist conspiracy", refused to go along with the new system and stuck with the old Julian calendar. England and America waited until 1752 before making the switch. Mobs in England are reported to have rioted believing they were having their lives cut short by eleven days. George Washington's birthday was suddenly shifted from Feb. 11 to Feb. 22, but that didn't stop young George, who was 20 at the time, from continuing to celebrate it on the 11th.

You've probably already heard more than you ever wanted to know about dates and calendars, but we must first dispose of one last question, does the new millennium begin on January 1, 2000 or 2001? The problem you see, is that the Gregorian calendar did not begin with year zero for the date of Jesus' birth, but year one. Most of us don't reach our first birthday until we've lived a full year. The Gregorian calendar says that the year 1 B.C. immediately became 1 A.D. the moment that Jesus was born, which means that he was a year old the second he drew his first breath. So, technically, the 20th Century does not end until December 31 in the year 2000. But who's counting and who really cares? The big festival celebration will take place at midnight Jan. 1, 2000, nonetheless, and the 2001 celebration will be a let down in comparison. As already noted, there's something about all those zeroes that captures the mind and imagination.

Back in 1888, Edward Bellamy, frail son of a Baptist minister, from Chicopee Falls, MA., wrote a novel, Looking Backwards, about America in the year 2000. Listen to this excerpt from the character, Dr. Leete, who tells the protagonist from the 19th century, how the world has changed:

"We do without lawyers. In most cases, the guilty man pleads guilty....Falseness is so despised among us that few offenders would lie to save themselves."
"This is the most astonishing thing you have yet told me. If lying has gone out of fashion, this is indeed the 'new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness' which the prophet foretold."
"Such is, in fact, the belief of some persons nowadays. They hold we have entered upon the millennium."


Does that sound anything like the world we live in? Lawyers are out of business and lying has gone out of fashion? Hardly. Bellamy, who was greatly distressed at the oppressive abuses of the capitalism and industrialism of his day, imagined an egalitarian socialistic future society in which everybody behaved like a middle-class minister's son, college is free, everyone participates in public service, sickness and crime have almost disappeared, retirement is at age 45, there is food and clothing and shelter for all citizens, and best of all, Congress meets only once every five years. Though Bellamy's novel had wooden characters and virtually no plot it was a huge success. People were fascinated by Bellamy's vision of the future and that magical mystical year 2000.

John Jacob Astor, the wealthy 19th century capitalist, also wrote a novel about the year 2000, Journey to Other Worlds. Astor's vision of the millennium was quite different than that of Bellamy's. In his vision, "Socialism has virtually ruined Europe, while the U.S., having absorbed Canada, Mexico and most of Central and South America, virtually rules the world together with its ally, Great Britain." (TIME, May 11, 1998) Astor's book was filled with imagined inventions of steam boilers powered by the sun, electricity generated by the tides, and battery-powered airplanes traversing the sky. At the conclusion of Astor's novel his main characters find the world too small for their liking and so "they take off for Jupiter in a spaceship equipped with booster rockets." (TIME) "The future glory of the human race," declared Astor, "lies in exploring at least the solar system." Astor's vision was more nearly right than Bellamy's, but irony of ironies, "this dreamer of technical progress, especially of huge powerful ships, went down with the Titanic."

Our time and future is neither that of Bellamy's nor of Astor's. We have to face something neither of them ever thought of, an opportunity and a potential disaster, Y2K, a simple change and transition from year '99 to year '00. Most of the computers that control our banking and financial markets, cash registers and business accounting, food markets and distribution of produce, defense establishments and nuclear weapons, etc., etc., etc., were not equipped to make this simple change of date at the millennium. The switch from '99 to '00 will be perceived as a regression to the year 1900. 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 war heads will be launched against an imagined enemy. The government will impose martial law and take away our constitutional freedoms.

Is this just another tempest in a teapot, Chicken Little imagining a descending acorn is the sky falling, or had we better pay attention, hunker down in our bunkers, and stock pile food 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, and maybe we'll have to get rid of our old computers, take the horse to work instead of our car for awhile, but western civilization is not about to end up on the ash heap because of a calendar change from 1999 to 2000.

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, 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 62 on the 11th of December. This is my 30th year of ministry at First Parish in Norwell. The church office will be printing another issue of the SPIRE this week. 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 check books.

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.

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 second 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.