What is a Jubilee Year?

Pope Francis at Holy Door St Peters

Is it when the Georgetown Hoyas beat the Syracuse Orange? We present another answer, from the Holy Bible…

In the beginning, the human race dwelt in paradise. God freely gave us everything we need.

But our First Parents fell. The human race became slaves of the devil, condemned to death. Malice and contempt entered into our relations with each other.

Before the Fall, our First Parents could easily understand themselves as children in the divine household, endowed with life through the infinite generosity of the omnipotent Creator. But as sinners we learned to put our selves at the center of all our reckonings. We human beings took up the business of ruthlessly competing with each other. We learned to deal harshly with others, seeking individual advantages at every turn.

We can pick up this story at the beginning of the book of Exodus. The fallen human situation manifests itself completely in the fate of the Hebrew people in Egypt.

The children of Abraham had to labor building the monuments of their Egyptian masters, forced to lay bricks in the hot sun by the crack of the whip. Because he envied the Hebrews’ vitality, Pharaoh decreed a partial genocide, ordering the slaughter of all the Hebrew baby boys.

The Egyptians did not know God; they did not grasp His magnificent generosity. Pharaoh vainly hoped to achieve some kind of immortality through his own opulence and splendor, which had to come at the expense of the suffering of the Hebrews. The oppressor tried to grasp for himself what only God can give, by oppressing the foreigners.

Egyptian godPettiness and nastiness, in the service of vanity, ruled the land.

It spread: even the Hebrews fought among themselves. They forgot how to hope for anything better than the cruel fate of slaves.

The Lord, however, remembered His promise to Abraham, which He had made some centuries earlier. That promise had lifted Abraham out of the petty world of competition and mutual animosity among men.

God had made Abraham a friend, allowing Abraham a share in the divine point-of-view, the point-of-view of pure generosity. Remember how Abraham had boldly begged the Lord to have mercy on the corrupt city of Sodom? For the sake of fifty innocent people living there, spare the city! Or 45, or 40, or 30, or 20… “If there are even ten innocent people in Sodom, Lord, won’t you spare the city?”

During the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt, the Lord remembered, or course, His promise of friendship with Abraham. God called Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Then He gave the liberated slaves a fruitful land of their own, where they could dwell in peace and prosperity.

When the twelve tribes entered into, and possessed, the Holy Land, they experienced a moment in time that was almost like a return to the Garden of Eden.

God Himself allotted “portions” to the tribes: portions of land on which to dwell, which they could cultivate to provide for their daily needs. In other words, when the Exodus from slavery was complete, God gave the Israelites everything, just as He had given Eden to our First Parents. Among the children of Abraham, there was no question of competition, bargains, contracts, debts, mortgages, banks. No one owed anybody anything. Everyone received from God the free gift of a good living.

That said, these people were children of Adam, just like us. So, before long, some grew rich and some became poor. Then, the poor found themselves in dire need of cash. So Israelites began to buy and sell land among themselves—land that had originally been given freely by God, as a perpetual inheritance to each tribe and family.


Can’t we imagine that, at first, it must have seemed almost sacrilegious for an Israelite to refer to land that he had bought from another Israelite as “his property.” He knew perfectly well that it was not, in fact, his property. It belonged to God, and God had given it to the family of the poor man.

But, with time, the rich Israelites managed to get over those scruples. The rich Israelites become more and more like the rich Egyptians who had enslaved the Hebrews of the past. Therefore, God laid down the law of the sabbatical year, and the law of the jubilee.

To start with: Every seven years, all the Israelites must take a break from a particular idea, namely the idea that “this property is mine. I control it.” On the Sabbath year, you had to remind yourself: No. Actually, God owns and controls the entire earth. In this seventh year, God Himself will direct what kind of fruit this land will bear. And all the fruit that it bears, according to His sovereign will, belongs equally to everyone. In the other words, the Sabbath-year law means: For one year out of every seven, “your” property must be a free-growing garden for the poor.

But that is by no means all. The sabbatical-year law really only serves as a warm-up for the Law of the Jubilee: every fifty years, all property reverts to the family to which God originally gave it. After all, the Lord reminds the Israelites, “those whom I brought out of the land of Egypt are servants of mine.”

God has given us everything. We all share in this fundamental fact: Without God we have nothing, we are nothing. God generously gives. That is why anything exists at all. A servant of God can only do likewise, forgetting that anything is “mine.”

Now, in Leviticus, God laid these laws down. But the our fore-fathers of the Old Covenant never fulfilled them. We have no evidence whatsoever that the sabbatical-year law, much less the Law of Jubilee, ever got put into practice. No surprise there.

But let’s fast forward some centuries. Christ came. He redeemed the world. He poured forth His gifts upon His Church, fulfilling the Old Covenant, and ushering in the Age of Grace and Favor. Christ always abides with the new Israel, always sustains Her and guides Her. Christ never ceases to shepherd all the pilgrim sons and daughters of the Church toward heaven.

This is the logo for the Holy Year of Mercy, which opens Dec. 8 and runs until Nov. 20, 2016. (CNS/courtesy of Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization) See JUBILEE-MERCY May 5, 2015.Even with all these gifts and graces, however, we Christians nonetheless can fall into spiritual torpor like the Israelites did, as they gradually became more and more like the Egyptians who had enslaved them.

We, too, can find ourselves all but completely enveloped in the tedious monotony of the fallen world. Our horizons can become cramped and our souls filled with petty agitations. Over time, we can grow accustomed to a life that is all but spiritually dead. A life that has lost the divine point-of-view, the point-of-view God shared with Abraham. A life that has lost the savor of God’s utter, total generosity, the awareness that everything good is God’s free gift.

So, even in the Age of the New Covenant, we need opportunities to break out of the uninspiring confines that our routines can box us into. When the normal rut becomes so habitual that everyone, without realizing it, forgets there is more to life—that’s when we especially need God to break it all to bits by His hugeness.

God’s mercy, God’s generosity trumps all our petty antagonisms and lists of grievances. We need to remember that there was a beautiful beginning to this world, when the only debt anyone had was: to love and adore the Creator.

Here’s how Pope Francis explains why he declared this Jubilee Year:

We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness…

Holy Father quotes the Summa Theologica: “It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence particularly in this way.” The Pope goes on: “Saint Thomas Aquinas’ words show that God’s mercy, rather than a sign of weakness, is the mark of his omnipotence.”

Then the Pope expresses what he hopes for us during the Jubilee Year:

We want to live this Jubilee Year in light of the Lord’s words: Merciful like the Father… “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). It is a program of life as demanding as it is rich with joy and peace. Jesus’ command is directed to anyone willing to listen to his voice. In order to be capable of mercy, therefore, we must first of all dispose ourselves to listen…rediscovering the value of silence in order to meditate on the Word that comes to us. In this way, it will be possible to contemplate God’s mercy and adopt it as our lifestyle.

He goes on:

It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples.

Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.

And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead. (Misericordiae Vultus 15)

Popes designate jubilee years for one main reason: to grant indulgences. When we repent of our sins, God forgives us and liberates us from the eternal punishment that we have deserved for offending Him. Nonetheless, our debt to justice remains, and purifying ourselves completely takes time.

A Year of Jubilee reminds us, though, that we do not face the prospect of this painful purification all by ourselves, as solitary individuals. We face it as members of the one Church. And the Church has had many saints.

So the supreme authority of the Church, moved to imitate the indulgent heavenly Father, indulgently grants us a share in the goodness of the saints, thereby reducing our own personal debt to justice. That’s an indulgence. And during a Jubilee Year, indulgences flow much more freely.

In his letter about obtaining indulgences during this Jubilee Year, Holy Father expressed something very profound, I think, when he focused on our obtaining the Holy-Year indulgence by practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Practicing the works of mercy obtains for us the grace of total forgiveness from the Father.

The Pope writes that this would be the Jubilee-Year Indulgence in full: to experience living a year of jubilee in total harmony with the merciful Father.

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