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The Jubilee Through the Ages

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Huge crowds of people from within and beyond the British Isles turned out to celebrate with Queen Elizabeth in June 2002. It was her Golden Jubilee, the celebration of 50 years on the throne. As they were celebrating in their various ways, many of them might not have realised that the original idea of a jubilee didn't have much to do with monarchs, but certainly had an important association with the number 50.

'Jubilee' is one of several concepts (such as 'celebration' and 'holiday') that had their origins in some solemn religious occasion, but have since come to mean also some sort of secular jollification.

The original jubilee goes all the way back to the very beginning of the Old Testament. You will of course recall the account of how God created the world in six days, and how on the seventh day He rested. But not only did He rest on that day, He blessed it, and sanctified it, and made it a Holy Day. So it was called the Sabbath, from the Hebrew 'to rest', and specially set apart from the ordinary weekdays.

A couple of biblical books later we find the children of Israel journeying through the wilderness towards the Promised Land, and God handing down various laws to Moses. This is where the Sabbath starts to crop up in an agricultural and societal context. Long before they got to the land, let alone started to cultivate and till it, they were told:

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; but in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord.
- Leviticus 25: 3,4

During this 'sabbatical year' they were not to sow the fields or prune the vines or even bring in what grew of its own accord. The land would lie fallow for a year, which was no doubt good husbandry and sound agricultural practice.

God gave the number seven a special significance for mankind right from the start. So He decreed that after seven sabbatical years - 49 years in all - there should be an extra-special 50th year. This was the Jubilee Year.

The jubilee was to be solemnly proclaimed as follows:

Then thou shalt cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.
- Leviticus 25: 9

'Jubilee' comes from the Hebrew word 'Yobel'. This is similar to the Shofar, which is still sounded on solemn occasions in the synagogues today: a wind instrument made from the horn of a ram (or other suitable kosher animal). It is a simple musical instrument (literally just a horn, though - as above - sometimes translated as 'trumpet') that, like a conch, produces only its fundamental note and the harmonics which derive from it. The sound it makes is distinctive, eerie, and unmistakable.

As well as leaving the land fallow, the celebration of the Jubilee Year included:

  • Restitution of land to the original owners,
  • The remission of debt, and
  • The emancipation of slaves.

The Holy Year

The Roman Catholic Church took up the idea of the jubilee or Holy Year when Pope Boniface VII, in his Bull Antiquorum Habet Fida Relatio proclaimed the first 'ordinary' (ie, regular) jubilee in 1300. At that time people had all kinds of problems, what with wars, poverty, plague, crop failures and so on. They thought that this was divine retribution for their sins, so they wanted to do penance and try to get back to a more holy way of life. They therefore went on pilgrimages, travelling on foot to Rome to be blessed by the Pope and pray at the tombs of the Apostles.

Particularly for Christmas 1299, there were such vast numbers of these penitential pilgrims that the Pope decided to proclaim a year of forgiveness of all sins, to be repeated as a jubilee every 100 years. That first jubilee pilgrimage notably included the poet Dante and the artists Cimabue and Giotto, as well as the brother of the king of France.

Subsequently there were many requests for another jubilee to be held, not in 1400 but in 1350. The Pope (Clement VI) agreed to this, and decreed that there should be a jubilee every 50 years from then on. Pilgrims were required to visit various sites in Rome, including the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul and the church of St John Lateran. Some time later, Pope Urban VI decided to reduce the period to 33 years, in memory of the earthly life of Jesus.

The next Pope, Boniface IX, opened the Holy Door on Christmas Eve 1390. The crowds of pilgrims were so large, however, that he decided to call a second Holy Year at Christmas 1400. After that, a Holy Year was called every 25 years.

At the time of writing, the most recent jubilee or Holy Year of the Church was the 'millennium' year 2000, the 26th 'ordinary' jubilee. A jubilee is 'ordinary' if it falls after a set number of years, and 'extraordinary' when it is proclaimed for some special event.

The proclamation of 'extraordinary' jubilees dates from the 16th Century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year. There were two extraordinary jubilees in the 20th Century: 1933 was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of the Resurrection of Christ in the year 33, and 1983 was proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark 1950 years since the Resurrection.

Royal Jubilees

British Royal Golden Jubilees are most unusual, since very few British monarchs have remained on the throne for 50 years, and it will presumably be quite some time now before the next one. Kings Henry III, Edward III and James I (James VI of Scotland) each had 50 years or more on the throne, but there are no records of any Jubilee celebrations.

King George III

The first recorded Golden Jubilee of a British monarch was that of George III. The 50th year of his reign began on 25 October, 1809. The King and other members of the Royal Family attended a private service in Windsor Castle and a grand fete and firework display. In London the Lord Mayor and Corporation processed to St Paul's Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving before holding a dinner at the Mansion House, the palace and home of the Lord Mayor of the City of London.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria had the longest reign of any British monarch. She celebrated not only her Golden Jubilee (50 years) but also her Diamond Jubilee (60 years).

Her Golden Jubilee was celebrated on 20 and 21 June 1887. There was a royal banquet for 50 foreign kings and princes, together with heads of the overseas colonies and dominions. There was a procession in an open carriage to Westminster Abbey, for which she refused to wear a crown, but wore a bonnet instead. On returning to Buckingham Palace, she appeared on the balcony, where she was cheered by huge crowds. In the evening she was then wheeled in her chair to sit and watch the fireworks in the garden.

Ten years later, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. On 22 June 1897 she went to St Paul's Cathedral, where a short service of thanksgiving was held outside the building, as the Queen was too frail to manage the steps. She then rode for six miles through streets lined with cheering crowds.

Queen Elizabeth II

In 1977, 25 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth was celebrated throughout the country and the Commonwealth, as a Silver Jubilee. On the evening of Monday 6 June, the Queen lit a bonfire beacon at Windsor, which signalled the lighting of a chain of beacons across the country. In London next day she drove in the Gold State Coach to St Paul's Cathedral for a Service of Thanksgiving, followed by speeches and lunch at the Guildhall.

The Golden Jubilee celebrated in June 2002 was a similar event. As with the Silver Jubilee it was preceded by much travel by the Queen and Prince Philip around the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. Then a long weekend of celebrations included two concerts in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, to each of which some 12,000 members of the public were admitted; fireworks displays and the lighting of beacons; the Gold State Coach to St Paul's; the lunch in the Guildhall; and a carnival representing British life over the last 50 years.

Jubilee Movement International

Jubilee Movement International was established in April 2001. Delegates from more than 50 countries resolved to organise themselves into a network that would campaign 'to lift nations and their peoples out of foreign debt bondage; and to struggle for global economic and social justice'.

'Jubilee 2000' became an international pressure group to 'cancel the unpayable debts of the poorest countries by the year 2000, under a fair and transparent process'. In more than 60 countries around the world they organised the first-ever global petition, which collected 24 million signatures.

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