A Cosmic Moment


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THE MILLENNIUM IS THE COMET that crosses the calendar every thousand years. It throws off metaphysical sparks. It promises a new age, or an apocalypse. It is a magic trick that time performs, extracting a millisecond from its eternal flatness and then, poised on that transitional instant, projecting a sort of hologram that teems with the summarized life of the thousand years just passed and with visions of the thousand now to come.

The approaching millennium year 2000 is counted from the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Judea, in the year (so the Bible says) when Caesar Augustus decreed that a census of the world be taken. A millennial year has thus occurred only once before: fifty generations ago, in the year 1000, on what was a very different, more primitive planet earth. So this one has a strange, cosmic prestige, a quality of the almost unprecedented. The world approaches it in states of giddiness, expectation and, consciously or unconsciously, a certain anxiety. The millennium looms as civilization's most spectacular birthday, but, as it approaches, the occasion also sends out nagging threats of comeuppance.

The millennial date is an arbitrary mark on the calendar, decreed around the ^ year 525 by the calculations of an obscure monk. The celebrated 2000, a triple tumbling of naughts, gets some of its status from humanity's fascination with zeroes -- the so-called tyranny of tens that makes a neat, right-angle architecture of accumulating years, time sawed into stackable solidities, like children's blocks. And it is true, of course, that the moment may signify little to non-Christians.

Nonetheless, the millennium is freighted with immense historical symbolism and psychological power. It does not depend on objective calculation, but entirely on what people bring to it -- their hopes, their anxieties, the metaphysical focus of their attention. The millennium is essentially an event of the imagination.

Thousand-year blocks of time enforce a chastening standard of weight and scale. The millennium has a gravitational pull that draws in the largest meanings, if only because its frame of reference is so enormous. The millennial drama represents nothing less than the ritual death and rebirth of history, one thousand-year epoch yielding to another. Such imponderable masses of time overwhelm and humble the individual life-span, reducing human tragedies and accomplishments to windblown powder.

The year 2000 has long been a fixed point in the distance, a temporal horizon line. In recent years the young have begun to calculate how old they will be at the turn of the millennium. Older people have wondered if they would live to see it. The millennium has also served as a projected launch platform for humankind's most ambitious, far-reaching projects. The year 2000 would be the Year One of a better age, the decisive border at which the Future would start. Now that the destination of 2000 is approaching with a kind of dopplered urgency, people are bound to wonder what the future will look like after that. What will be the new frontier beyond 2000?

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