Jenny Sundel arrived in New York last week to attend her brother's wedding. The former Hollywood entertainment reporter had spent the previous year in Paris, eating macarons and posting Hipstamatic images on her Tumblr account. If you type “jesus year” into Google, Ms. Sundel's testimony is what comes up first. Her restlessness has been optimized, which can't be dismissed at a time when significance is measured by how phrases are ranked by the leading search engines.
“It was one of those things you read – you don't even think it's going to be an important thing,” says Ms. Sundel, describing how she came to be a unlikely prophet for adopting the most significant year in Christ's life as a metaphor for personal growth. “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 turning 33, the significance was immediately dismissed. “Thirty-three 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,'” Ms. Sundel recalls, stressing the importance of a concept she didn't fully understand.
At that moment, she decided to quit her job, sell her possessions on Craigslist and spend the next year in Europe. Eight days later, she was on an airplane with no clue what to do next.
So, what exactly is a Jesus Year? The term cropped up periodically on early blogs and Myspace pages, but only now appears to be gaining traction among those trying to make the increasingly difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood.
This is the definition found in the Urban Dictionary: “Time to get moving and get things done (maybe).” And one of the first mainstream uses appears in a 1996 Chicago Sun-Times article about Tennessee-born singer-songwriter R.B. Morris, who refers cryptically to having done a “Jesus Year” but offers no details.
Brooklyn-based artist Wayne Adams is more forthcoming. “Thirty-three is largely considered the age Jesus Christ was when His life and ministry were abruptly ended in His crucifixion,” he explains on the blog Curator, adding that, as he approached his own Jesus Year, “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.”
But the impulse is more spiritual than overtly Christian. To paraphrase comedian Bill Hicks, who died two months short of the start of his own Jesus Year, we live in a culture that commemorates the death and resurrection of its messiah by telling children a giant bunny rabbit leaves chocolate eggs while they sleep. This is a generation of people obsessed with vampires and zombies who grew up in a world that prints more copies of the Ikea catalogue than the Bible. Is it any surprise that their search for meaning is being played out on social media?
A recent study by British social-networking site Friends United asserts that the year is the happiest time of our lives. “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,” says psychologist Donna Dawson, best known as Company magazine's first Agony Aunt.
This interpretation doesn't, however, take into account the frustrations faced by today's thirtysomethings. “The basic milestones that young people of previous generations could expect to complete by the age of 30 – graduating school, leaving home, becoming financial independent and forming their own families – aren't necessarily occurring in that standard fashion,” says Barbara Mitchell, who teaches sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.