Most of us wonder what the third millennium will bring. To answer that we must first look back. There have been innumerable articles about the great changes in the last thousand years. I was reading one that described the remarkable progress we've made since the year 1000. It mentioned all the labor saving devices at home and in our workplaces. But at the end of the article came this observation: in spite of all the new technology, we actually spend more time working today than European peasants did a thousand years ago. We have more labor saving devices but less real leisure.
And the leisure we do have is more likely to be filled with distractions. We are bombarded by advertisements - on the average day three thousand will hit us - on billboards, the sides of buses and boxes, and of course all the media. Besides advertisement with its promise of quick solutions, we have lots of entertainment options and we tend to take advantage of them so that our leisure time becomes crowded with diversion. Unlike people a thousand years ago we do not have much time to ponder basic questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Who made me? What is the purpose of my life? Is there life after death? We tend to dismiss them as futile or simply a waste of time. We want to get on with the practical business of life. Why fret about what life itself is?
Of course like man a thousand years ago we also feel anxiety about our existence. The Germans call this angst, not just a momentary fear, but a deep uneasiness we carry inside. But today we have come to consider angst as a disease. When we feel sad, depressed, angry, guilty, hopeless, we can go to the doctor for treatment. Now, medication is not bad in itself, but it can block an obvious question: Is there a good reason behind the sadness, guilt, fear, anger? Maybe those feelings are telling me something important.
As we come to the end the twentieth century, I picture modern man this way: We are like a person who has set out to cross a desert. At the beginning he receives a canteen with the right amount of water. But along the way a merchant comes to him and says, "I will give you a case of soft drink for that water." What a deal, the man thinks, so he hands over the canteen, takes the soft drink and promptly sits down to consume a bottle. It turns out to be sweet, even syrupy. It is so delicious that he promptly drinks another. But because of the high sugar content, it makes him more thirsty. Not only that, the case is heavy to carry, but he struggles on, hoping he is not too far from the oasis. He eventually arrives at a sand dune which he cannot see beyond. He opens a soft drink; each taste gives less pleasure - and more thirst. To climb the dune, he would have to leave the case behind but he cannot do it. The merchant told him, "It's the real thing."
And so he stays there immobilized. The irony is that right over the dune lies the oasis. If he could just separate himself from the cloying drink he would quickly come to a spring of clear, cold water. And the water bubbling from it forms a pool where he could bathe. Now, I will not keep you guessing what is the pool and the spring. The pool is the sacrament of confession which the Church Fathers called "second baptism." The spring is Jesus himself. He alone can satisfy our thirst. You can come to Him, but you have to turn away from empty promises which crowd Him out of your heart.
We have come to the end of a century full of false promises. Many sincere people thought communism would bring paradise on earth. Once they got control they created the biggest inferno man has ever seen. Others, like the Nazis, sought heaven on earth by focusing on their own blood group. They considered themselves so superior that they could sacrifice others to their supposedly noble cause.
Those ideologies are dead, but something new has replaced them. It is what Pope John Paul refers to as "consumerism" - not just the production of useful things, but the belief that their consumption is our ultimate purpose. To earn money becomes the highest imperative and to spend it the greatest hope for happiness. Consumerism includes the belief that technology will make us masters, rather than servants, that progress will solve all our deepest problems.
The ideology of consumerism has more seductive appeal than communism or nazism because to a degree it does "deliver the goods." But it can be just as ruthless in disposing of those who get in the way of our plans. Consider that in the United States alone, since 1973, we have destroyed as many innocent lives as the communists and nazis put together. And it is completely legal - just like Dauchau and Auschwitz. Now, unlike the death camps, abortion is not being organized by our government - but it does reveal the dark side of our consumer society. And we not only destroy tiny human lives, we also "create" them in glass dishes - and then treat them like products we purchase in a store. It is all taken for a great blessing, another "miracle" of technology. But it contains, like communism, the seeds of its destruction. This is because humanity is something we must discover, not create. The temptation to be "master" is perennial, but more seductive today because science has put so much real control in our hands - or at least in the hands of certain people in our society. C.S. Lewis pointed out that man's "control over nature" must inevitably become the control of some men over others.
The hopeful sign is that many people are recognizing consumerism as a false promise. A certain humility has entered our soul. We sense we are called not to be masters, but servants. At first that is humbling, but there is also something exhilarating here because we discover we can actually go from being servants to being sons. That is where Jesus comes in. Recognizing that nothing else is this life can fulfill us, we turn to him. He alone can satisfy our thirst. But we have to give up the substitutes. That can sound worse than having a limb amputated, but please consider this: After you have drunk his living water, he will show you the right use of the things he has created. First you must become a servant, then ask for the Holy Spirit to become a son.
This weekend I invite you to follow the example of the Magi. On the cutting edge of science two thousand years ago, they used their astronomical observations to lead them to a small baby. Him they recognized as the one who does suffice. They adored him and gave him their finest gifts. You and I are invited do the same. Pope John Paul has prophesied that the third millennium will be a new springtime for the church - and thru her for the world. But only if we come to Jesus, the living spring who can satisfy our deepest thirst.
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