(This article was written in Rome during the Catholic "Holy Year.")
This year many pilgrims are arriving in Rome, from all parts of the world, after having travelled miles and miles, for the purpose of crossing the threshold of the "Holy Door" of St. Peter. It is the Holy Year! They are bringing with them their burden of sins, of hopes, of doubts, and of griefs. What are they seeking? Peace, grace, pardon, reconciliation to God, and certainty for the future.
The Jewish Jubilee
The Jews of ancient times had a Jubilee—a holy year. It was to reoccur at the end of every seven weeks of years, that is, every fifty years. In the Jewish system it was the crowning of the feasts, consecrated to rest. In the law of Moses we find: the weekly sabbaths, which provided rest for the people (Exodus 20:9-11), the septennial sabbaths, which provided rest for the ground (Exodus 23:10,11), and the Jubilee, which not only brought rest every fifty years but restored the social order of the country to the condition established by God (Leviticus 25:1-55). It was based upon the following principle: "The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me" (Leviticus 25:23). "And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbor, or buyest ought of thy neighbor's hand … according to the multitude of years [until Jubilee] thou shalt increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of the years thou shalt diminish the price of it" (Leviticus 25:14-17). The Jubilee reminded both the seller and the buyer that the nation of Israel belonged unto the Lord and could not be sold.
The Jewish Jubilee was announced on the great day of atonement, with the sound of the trumpets. So when the blood of the victim was spilt and the expiation of sin was completed, the sound of the Jubilee vibrated and re-echoed in the hills and valleys of the land to announce the year of emancipation and redemption for all its inhabitants. Everybody and everything enjoyed the holy influence of this blessed institution: exiles returned to their country, the chains of slaves were let loose, debtors were freed from their debts, many families rejoiced at the returning of dear ones considered lost, and alienated properties returned to their rightful owners. When the melodious sound of the Jubilee trumpet reverberated in the ear of the vigilant Israelite, he knew that at last the time of blessing had come.
The Roman Jubilee
The Roman Catholic Jubilee dates from the 13th century and was instituted by Bonifacio VIII. According to an ancient "bolla," (papal letter authenticated by the Pope's seal) dated the year 1300, the faithful, at the end of every century, were to have their Jubilee as the Jews had observed centuries before. Later the interval between one Jubilee and another was changed to 50 years, then to 40, and then again to 33 years (the number of the years of our Lord), and finally by Pope Nicholos V to 25 years.
But what is the precise object of the Holy Year and what are the conditions necessary to participate in the Catholic Jubilee? As part of a general call to renewed religious devotion, the following conditions are specified: confession and communion, a visit to the four Roman basilicas, St. Peter, St. John, St. Paul and St. Maria Maggiore, repeating in each of them the profession of the Catholic faith as found in the "creed," four times the Lord's prayer, and four times Ave Maria and gloria. By fulfilling these requirements, the pilgrims (as well as those in other parts of the world who perform extraordinary acts of devotion and charity) can receive a special "indulgence" that is said to remove the penalty of particular sins.
This, in substance, is the Roman Catholic Jubilee. But does all this that it requires and permits find a justification in the Word of God? The Holy Doors that are opened in the basilicas, do they have any relation to the door that gives access to the Kingdom of Heaven, of which the Gospels speak?
The Christian Jubilee
In the book of the prophet Isaiah, which announces with such clearness the work of the Saviour (though written 700 years before the birth of Christ), we find the following prediction: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me; because the Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent Me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Isaiah 61:1,2). Of whom was the prophet speaking in this passage? The answer is found in Luke 4:16-22, where we find Jesus in the synagogue reading these words and then proclaiming: "This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears."
Here is the true Jubilee foretold by the prophets and announced by the Lord Jesus: the Jubilee that brings pardon, salvation, remission of sins and life eternal to all who believe. This was a Jubilee of love, of grace and mercy for all sinners.
The door of salvation was opened by the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ. The hammer that drove the cruel nails in His holy body was, symbolically, that which opened the Holy Door through which we may enter heaven. When Jesus, the Son of God, condemned in our place, died on the cross, the veil of the Temple of Israel—a symbol of the separation between God and men—was torn from top to bottom. The hindrance was removed; the door was opened; sin which had come in to break man's communion with God was expiated and conquered.
For this reason Jesus was enabled to say "I am the door of the sheep … by Me if any man enter in, he shall be saved" (John 10:7-9). The door that we have to enter is not the one that is only opened at intervals in Rome. It is not necessary to make long pilgrimages and to spend money in order to reach it. The door of salvation is open to all, but not all will find it, because it is a narrow way—too narrow for your friends or family or church to carry you through—each person must personally enter by faith in Christ alone.
How do you enter the door of salvation? Agree with God that you are a lost and helpless sinner: "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Believe the good news that Jesus died for sinners: "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). By faith, bring your burden of sin and sorrow and grief to Jesus and leave it with Him. He promises to receive you on the basis of what He has already done for you: "Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37). Trust Him—and Him alone—for your salvation today, and experience true grace, pardon, reconciliation, and the peace of certainty for the future.
—Adapted from "The Holy Year Explained" by C.S. Davie.