Our Jesus Years

8 Apr

So why hasn’t our 33rd year gone mainstream? (And why can’t Gross Domestic Happiness replace Gross Domestic Product?)

Banksy Bethlahem Jerusalem Jesus Year

It’s turned into an obligation to do something significant in one’s 33rd year of life. Though Christ may have been crucified and saved all humanity in his 33rd year, those who closely follow a Jesus Year are not necessarily religious. In fact, the opposite is often true. (PHOTO BY CHRIS KOENTGES)

Heaven is a place on earth where you/Tell me all the things you want to do.

—Lana Del Ray, Video Games 

Jenny Sundel, 34-years-old, arrived in New York last week to attend her brother’s wedding. She spent the previous year in Paris, eating macrons and posting hipstamatic images to a Tumblr blog. Depending how you like to measure such things, Sundel, who is Jewish and a former Hollywood entertainment reporter, had just completed the most significant Jesus Year in the history of humankind.

Such things have come to be measured by how they’re optimized for the leading search engines of our day. That is to say, if you type “jesus year” into Google, Jenny Sundel’s testimony is what comes up first.

“It was one of those things you read—you don’t even think it’s going to be an important thing,” said Sundel, an unlikely prophet, whose savvy creeps up on you over the 33 pages that constitute her blog. “I don’t know if it was David Carr—I’m kind of addicted to addiction memoirs and I mix them up. Whoever it was, they kicked crack in their Jesus Year. I read it and I was like, Jesus Year? 33? That’s how old I’m turning.” She didn’t think about it again until a week before her birthday. When she told a close friend she was about to become 33, it was immediately dismissed. “33 is a nothing year,” her friend said. “It’s not 30, it’s not 35—it’s not even 40.”

“I told her, actually, it’s a major year. It’s my Jesus Year,” Sundel recalled, without quite knowing she meant by the expression. “Once I said it, I was like ‘wow, this is a Jesus Year. That feels like so important.’” In that moment, she decided to quit her job, sell her possessions on Craigslist and spend the next year in Paris. It is a far cry from, say, the Via Dolorosa. But eight days later she was on an airplane–with no clue what to do next.

There is much to suggest that the Jesus Year is more than a passing meme. For one, it barely qualifies as a meme in the first place. “The 33rd year of your life. Time to get moving and get things done (maybe)” is the lone definition on UrbanDictionary.com (with a grand total of 20 up and 4 down votes). By contrast, there are four pages of definitions for Tebowing (the top one gets 1470 up, 882 down votes.) So why have we been so slow to adopt the Jesus Year?

While anyone with a cell phone can crouch down in the middle of Times Square like Tim Tebow and send their photo out into the world—like that’s the entire move—equating your 33rd year on earth to a Jesus Year is only the beginning. There is no established method for such a year. Like any attempt to engage the 2,000-odd-year legacy of a figure like Christ, interpretation is required.

“Thirty-three is largely considered the age Jesus Christ was when His life and ministry were abruptly ended in His crucifixion,” writes the Brooklyn based artist Wayne Adams in The Curator magazine. Adams, who identifies himself as a practicing Christian, marked the year by becoming vegetarian.

I have always felt a sort of build-up to this age. It’s not that anyone tried to actually compare me to Jesus or asked me if I planned on outdoing, one-upping, or upstaging Him in some way; it’s just that in the back of my mind it seemed like there was a sort of historical/biblical precedent for being at the height of one’s career, or at least doing something incredibly important at that age.

A survey, which asserts that age 33 is the happiest year of our lives, has been making the rounds this week. The survey came packaged with a quote from Psychologist Donna Dawson.

The age of thirty-three is enough time to have shaken off childhood naivety and the wild scheming of teen-aged years without losing the energy and enthusiasm of youth. By this age innocence has been lost, but our sense of reality is mixed with a strong sense of hope, a “can do” spirit, and a healthy belief in our own talents and abilities. We have yet to develop the cynicism and world-weariness that comes with later years.

The United Church of Canada, which has steadily updated its statements of faith over the last 86.5 years, undertook a campaign called “Emerging Spirit,” aimed specifically at 30–45 year old Canadians who specifically had “very little or no knowledge of organized religion and the contemporary church. They are one of the first Canadian generations to grow up largely outside of the church. Many are at a turning point in their lives where they’re considering major decisions about career directions, marriage and children, and setting down roots.”

While Sundel and Adams represent two very different interpretations, they stand out among the earnest and desperate remnants of Jesus Years past, which go back to the mid-90s Usenet, and lie now, half sunk, on abandoned Blogspots and MySpace pages, invoking the most grim passages of Douglas Coupland’s Life After God.

When you’re young, you always feel that life hasn’t yet begun—that life is always scheduled to begin next week, next month, next year, after the holidays—whenever. But then suddenly you’re old and the scheduled life didn’t arrive.

We can infer that a Jesus Year is a little bit like a midlife crisis. It’s a year of self-improvement. It’s a year of magical thinking. It’s the year you work on your bucket list. You travel. You gather your rosebuds. You dabble with the milder symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome. You take lots of photos of yourself. In many ways, it’s a personal bricolage for all the “years of” sabbaticals your culture’s thrown at a midlife crisis. (Italy, cooking Julia Childs’ recipes, reading every volume of the OED.)

“I found myself wanting to do something appropriate to the Jesus-ness of the occasion,” Adams blogged.

Something that would help me think differently or act more like Jesus in some way. Vegetarianism seemed like a likely candidate. I can’t say for certain that Jesus would be a vegetarian if He were walking around Manhattan, but I do think He’d definitely be aware of what He ate and I wouldn’t be surprised, knowing the way food is produced in the U.S., if He avoided meat altogether. I am sure He would tread lightly upon the earth, if you want to use the carbon footprint metaphor.

There is a further genre of books, which are neither by nor about 33-year-olds, but various years spent engaging religion. AJ Jacobs was an agnostic who endured the Year of Living Biblically. Benjamin Cohen was the Orthodox Jew who tried on Christianity in My Jesus Year. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross undertook a Year Inside Radical Islam. Minister Ed Dobson, a former disciple of Jerry Falwell, famously concluded a year-long attempt to live a year as Jesus had in 2008, by voting for Barrack Obama, who he believed best represented Jesus’s teachings. Dobson’s year seemed somehow too literal for both Christian and non-Christians. But you see the immense potential in these sincere undertaking.

We are waiting right now for someone, who can synthesize a method for a generation that watches Walking Dead on Sunday nights, and feels neither jealous nor threatened nor ironic—but somehow maybe just a little bit envious—of that generation that still fills pews on Sunday morning to meditate on the son of God’s return from the dead.

The post-secular age comes down to those who are still trying to close the barn door after the horses have bolted—and those who have set off to find them.The weekend newscast circa Easter 2010, which placed a lead story about Earl Woods speaking to Tiger from the dead in front of a story about Ringo Starr rejecting Pope Benedict’s forgiveness—represented the moment of no turning back.Or to paraphrase Bill Hicks, who died two months short of his own Jesus Year, this is a culture that commemorates the death and resurrection of its messiah by telling children a giant bunny rabbit leaves chocolate eggs while they sleep.

The Curator magazine, which published Adams’ Jesus Year blog, strikes me as n intriguing example of such sincere modern dialogue. Their FAQ begins:

Is The Curator an arts magazine? Is it a religious magazine? In a word, no. More broadly: Though we believe that our goals are those that people of faith, as well as people in the fine arts, should and do embrace, the common factor in our audience is not a specific vocation or religious persuasion, but the desire to help create ‘the world that ought to be’.”

Sincere people of different generations, faiths and political convictions, who have been warily pushed to opposite ends of an antagonistic dialogue, have found themselves cautiously intrigued by the Occupy movement. There was something about Occupy that was difficult to put a finger on. Likewise, these seemingly disparate groups—which are really not so disparate—similarly resent the idea that more copies of the IKEA catalogue are printed than the Bible.

The phrase I hope you take away from these tentative, but sincere, early attempts at post-millennial Jesus Years is: the world that ought to be. 

Chocolate Jesus

“Well I don’t go to church on Sunday. Don’t get on my knees to pray. Don’t memorize the books of the Bible. I got my own special way. I know Jesus loves me. Maybe just a little bit more. I fall down on my knees every Sunday. At Zerelda Lee’s candy store.”—Tom Waits, Chocolate Jesus

The 40th moderator of the United Church of Canada, also arrived in New York last week. Mardi Tindal, who holds an M.A. in educational psychology and a B.A. in psychology, had been invited to the UN headquarters by the Prime Minister of Bhutan to participate as a Christian spiritual leader in a high-level United Nations conference. The goal? To find a place for a Gross National Happiness metric in a global economic system hell bent on Gross Domestic Product. Tindal had never heard the expression “Jesus Year,” and was curious about the conditions that had precipitated Sundel’s quest.

Over the past eleven years, Sundel turned from acting and writing plays to a series of better paying gigs as an entertainment reporter. “I just spent so many years talking to other people about their lives, I was kind of ignoring my life,” Sundel had told me. “I have pictures of myself—I had to go to the Oscars for work—I didn’t even think that was interesting. Why wasn’t I treating any of these once in a lifetime experiences as interesting? I wanted to pay attention to everything that was going on around me, and kind of treat my life as important.” Sundel had described it: I had absolutely no more heart left in what I was doing. I was really having a crisis of creativity, which sounds very pretentious. I used to be a creative person. I used to be a complete person. How did I get on this hamster wheel of work? How did all of my identity go into that?”

It was not so dissimilar to the conditions that had driven the UN General Assembly to unanimously adopt Resolution 65/309, placing “happiness” on the global agenda.  Tindal referred to a lay theologian and Christan anarchist named Jacques Ellul. “When visual artists are in mid-life, they tend either to dramatically change their artistic style—or die. Either creatively or physically.”

The Santa Claus mural in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (PHOTO BY CHRIS KOENTGES)

Our culture accounts for time and authenticity differently than it once did. Why should numbers that end in 5 and 0 have significance? The years in which your culture lets you drive or drink or vote or watch movies with inappropriate material take on a defacto meaning. Canadians recently learned the fragility of such ages—the significance of 65, for instance, can be erased by something as ephemeral as a majority government finally acknowledging a shifting cultural context. But it leaves no magical odd-numbered years after 21.

“There is a name for this age that people are kind of throwing away, this early 30s malaise thing that I see in all of my friends,” Sundel told me. “At that age of 33, especially for women, because by the age of 35 you have to be married with babies otherwise you kind of missed your time. I feel like that’s when the pressure starts hitting, is the early 30s.”

One of the first mainstream references to a “Jesus Year” comes up in a 1996 Chicago Sun-Times article about the songwriter R.B. Morris. Morris won’t reveal his age, but cryptically refers to having done his Jesus Year, but yet to hit his Elvis Year. Elvis Year being one’s 42nd year. Nobody besides Jesus and Elvis (and Methuselah) has a year. Amy Winehouse’s sudden death last July added resonance to the 27 Club, which includes, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. The appeal of these years is a kind of ascension and end—the implication of transcendence—at exactly the same moment.

If you’re going to imbue otherwise arbitrary numbers in one’s life with cultural significance, 33 comes by it honestly. The palindromic numerology is appealing. The Basketball Jesus wore 33. A human spine has 33 vertebrae. The atomic number of arsenic suggests something ill and fated. You can concoct the numerical equivalent of AMEN (1+13+5+14=33) and imbue meaning into the infamous glossolalia Dutch Schultz spewed as he took his final bullet-induced breaths at age 33. If you are so inclined, you can cite a Chris Farley/John Belushi twist, and heed the parallels between Evas (Perón and Braun), each sharing the same fateful path of figures ranging from Van Gogh to Richard II to Bon Scott, whose “Highway To Hell” cracked the US top 100, forever shifting ACDC into America’s subconscious, the very year of his death. It’s not that these people die in their 33rd year, it’s that they died just as things had begun to take off. In death they became the symbol that ties together their respective eras.

And while we’re ignoring the robust scholarly debate over how old Jesus was when he was crucified—forget about the fact that 33 was not particularly young in 33AD—the most profound reality of 33 in today’s time is that is it’s the last year in the prized youth demographic. You are objectively worth less to the marketing machine that had praised you since your teens. All the things you bought—they don’t love you back.

The rub, of course, is—where do you turn?

“Five Fingers of the Same Hand.” Mural, as you enter Bethlehem. (PHOTO BY CHRIS KOENTGES)

“Want to know what’s weird?” Sundel told me. “I was brought up more religious than your average Jew. Like my parents are the kind of people that will tell me that they’re going to disown me if I don’t marry a Jew. I actually thought they were going to be, really, what are you doing? But they immediately got  it—as did all their friends. In a weird way, their Jewish friends in their 60s in Southern Florida, they’re some of my biggest supporters. They didn’t even pause to think what is this? They saw it for the quest aspects and the discoveries.”

She paused. She has that over-conscious sensibility of one, who has become a believer—in something—despite her natural instincts. “I thought maybe I would be taking more heat from religious Christians, but in fact they think they’re like ‘I never thought about a 33rd year as being such a special year.’”

Reinvention is an incredibly powerful image. Even the people, who showed up to by her stuff on craigslist expressed a surprisingly deep admiration—even a faith—in what she was doing. “Like oh my god, you’re just buying my dresser. I don’t even need this level of support from somebody on craigslist. People really wanted to support me.” Sundel’s grandfather died midway through her Jesus Year. She was alone. Devesated. A guy named Joe, who (yes) was in Canada on his own Jesus Year, wrote to her. “One jesus year to another, he really wanted to tell me that people come into your life sometimes, and you don’t know why, and he wanted to be kind of like an angel to me at that time to tell me that what I was doing was meaningful and that it had effected him, and to wish me well in this hard time. And honestly, even that moment alone was worth the whole year for me.”

Mardi Tindal’s assignment at the United Nations conference was to provide a concluding prayer. Though she had not, the night before the conference, picked that prayer, she had decided to adapt the Lord’s Prayer according to what she would hear. As we spoke about the conference, she emphasized: “We’re not talking about a superficial kind of happiness. We’re talking about a deep sense of well-being.”

She suggested that the Jesus Year spoke to a longing we all have to be more than ourselves. “Those in their 30s now, as Douglas Coupland said, are the first generation to be raised without religion. Without God, in a sense. Many in this generation, who have been raised without religion have been short changed, in a sense of belonging, to more than themselves. We need community.” She also said: “If they turn to Jesus it wouldn’t surprise me. He was a model for living a life of transcendence.”

The United Church of Canada, which has steadily updated its statements of faith over the last 86.5 years, had undertaken a campaign called “Emerging Spirit,” aimed specifically at 30–45 year old Canadians who specifically had “very little or no knowledge of organized religion and the contemporary church. They are one of the first Canadian generations to grow up largely outside of the church. Many are at a turning point in their lives where they’re considering major decisions about career directions, marriage and children, and setting down roots.” They spent $10.5 million on magazine advertisements featuring a bobble-head Jesus, a wedding cake with two grooms, Jesus sitting on Santa‘s lap, a can of whipped cream and the caption “How much fun can sex be before it’s a sin?”

As you read the Emerging Spirit blog, you’re struck by a singularly urgent awareness of this moment in the culture:

We have used, until it wilts from exhaustion, the quote from Loren Mead: ‘We are at the front edges of the greatest transformation of the church that has occurred for 1,600 years. It is by far the greatest change that the church has ever experienced in America; it may eventually make the transformation of the Reformation look like a ripple in a pond.’”

But the question remains, how far can the culture strip Jesus from the context? It’s not insignificant that on the last day of something called a Jesus Year, Sundel cites Steve Jobs: “You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

While previous generations stubbornly guarded traditions, this is the first culture in the history of the world to aggressively mix, match and tailor “tradition.” In the age of Pinterest, where the most powerful images of these times, and all the times that came before, are stripped of their context and sent like a Chinese Whisper across world’s social networks—there’s been nothing more surreal this week than watching the stream of industrial gothic chandeliers and half-naked 1970s nuns begin to absorb the displaced Easter imagery (into the vacuum where the contradictory Kony videos had been). These historic images and icons are reborn—with no bishop or rabbi or imam to mediate them. In glimpsing these images, we become deeply nostalgic for all the traditions that have somehow escaped us. Even as we don’t have slightest patience to sincerely practice such tradition. (It’s why we like the worn aesthetic of the hipstamatic images.) But how far can we strip Jesus from the context?

Sundel’s epiphanies over the year—which turned into 15 months—are not unlike you’d hear on a Sunday morning in any reasonable place of worship. “The ideas, I think, are in line with Jesus’s teaching, to help each other, and try to see the good in other people. To have meaningful connections to other people, not just superficial.”

“When I thought about this idea of reinvention and that 33 felt so monumental to me, and that there was a name for this year, and just kind of the idea of having a new beginning, and the fact that you’re getting a bonus year, you’re getting to live longer than Jesus. That’s pretty incredible.”

“I’m glad I did it,” wrote Adams at the end of his Jesus Year.

“If this was a project for my Jesus year, and Jesus was at the core, it seemed to make killing and eating His creation a bit more significant. I don’t know if all of this made me any more like Jesus, but I do think it has helped make me a little more conscientious in general, which I think Jesus would appreciate.

On my thirty-fourth birthday, when my wife and I went out for an intimate dinner in Brooklyn to break my year-long fast, she warned me not to get a steak and make myself sick. But I decided on something different anyway, because I wanted to end this self-assigned task appropriately. To end my Jesus year, I had the lamb chops.

And it was good.”


This really is a working definition. Please share any lessons and methods from your own Jesus Years.


 *These notes were used in another article.

POSTSCRIPT 1: to the conspiracy, add 33 as the age that a wife will leave Tom Cruise.

Yeah, 33 is the Jesus year. A big year in some way or another for everyone.

Maybe it’s when the new mars and venus cycles start again, since they are at the same place as when you were born around 32 (often a big love year or divorce year to get the love) and then 33 could be the start of the new cycles.

I often think that if you’re getting divorced at 33 or 34, you’ve stayed way too long and your divorce cycle was ‘supposed’ to happen around 32.

5 Responses to “Our Jesus Years”

  1. Tersa April 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    I love your information and find it both educating and inspirational though I have a problem with the I images you choose. Jesus like many spiritual teachers was on a path of enlightenment that got overtaking by the Powers of Corruption. You cannot use anyone’s religious icons and not stoop to a level of judgement on their upbringing and environment.
    We are lucky if we live Ina FREE society to worship who we please without fear that those sacred objects will be used in jest. I hated when the Taliban destroyed thousand year old Buddhist statues and try to respect everyone’s freedom of choice, sometimes you have to say I respect your belief but….

    • veryethnic April 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

      Thanks for these thoughts. You are right that nobody’s sacred objects should be used in jest. I believe the people who created these images did so out of sincerity and frustration, attempting to remind us that our sacred images have been appropriated to sell chocolate and cards and toys that nobody needs…not to mention, a certain kind of politics.

      The Taliban challenged our cozy notion of cultural relativism. There are, as you say, universal standards of grace and freedom.


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