For Christians, Labor Day invites us to examine how we view our own labor in the light of what the Scriptures and the teaching Church proclaims about the dignity of all human work
By Deacon Keith Fournier
Republished with permission of Catholic Online
On this Labor Day weekend most of us take a break from what we refer to as our “jobs” in order to rest and re-create. We are invited to honor human work and all human workers. It is a unique secular holiday with profound Christian potential. Many will gather for late summer cookouts and celebrations. We may sleep in a bit later than usual and relax from what is so often a frenzied pace in our contemporary pattern of life.
For many parents, Labor Day weekend marks a transition from the hectic pace of the summer to the new hectic pace of the school year. For students and teachers, it is also a portal into the new school year when we begin the work of education, a word whose Latin root means to “draw out” of the student what is good. Through authentically Christian education we are all invited to be drawn out into a fuller way of life.
For Christians, Labor Day invites us to examine how we view our own labor in the light of what the Scriptures and the teaching Church proclaims about the dignity of all human work, no matter what kind, precisely because it is done by human persons who are created in the Image and Likeness of God.
In 2004, St. John Paul II addressed leaders of the Catholic Action movement in Italy on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker and spoke of what he called the “gospel of work”. The word “gospel” means good news. One of the late Pope’s favorite passages from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Role of the Church in the Modern World informed so much of his writing and is worthy of consideration as we examine the dignity of work and the worker:
“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.”
“He who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.” (G.S. #22)
In 1981 John Paul released an Encyclical letter entitled “On Human Work” which beautifully presents a Christian vision of the dignity of human work and the worker. In the introductory paragraph he wrote: “(W)ork means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself. Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth.“
“From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.”
We live in an age that has lost sight of the true dignity of work – precisely because we have lost sight of the dignity of the worker. This loss is one more bad fruit of the rupture which was wrought by sin. In the industrial age, men and women were often reduced to mere instruments in a society that emphasized “productivity” over the dignity of the human person, the worker.
The technological age promised something different, but it has failed to deliver on that promise. Too often, men and women are still viewed as instruments and objects rather than persons and gifts. Even Science, a great gift meant to be placed at the service of the human person, human flourishing, the family and the common good, has often promoted a view of the human person as an object to be experimented on and disposed of at will. This fundamental error is the root of the contemporary culture of death.
To grasp the truth that dignity of all human labor derives from the dignity of the human person who engages in it requires what St Paul rightly called a “renewal of the mind” (See, Romans 12:2).In 2004, St John Paul told those participants at the Catholic Action gathering that because work “has been profaned by sin and contaminated by egoism,” it is an activity that “needs to be redeemed.” His words are critical for us to consider in this day in which we seem to be profoundly confused about the purpose, goodness and ends or goals of human work.
He reminded them that “Jesus was a man of work and that work enabled him to develop his humanity”. He emphasized that “the work of Nazareth constituted for Jesus a way to dedicate himself to the ‘affairs of the Father,'” witnessing that “the work of the Creator is prolonged” through work and that therefore “according to God’s providential plan, man, by working, realizes his own humanity and that of others: In fact, work ‘forms man and, in a certain sense, creates him.”
He emphasized the need for work to be rescued “from the logic of profit, from the lack of solidarity, from the fever of earning ever more, from the desire to accumulate and consume.” When the focus of work becomes subjected to what he called “inhuman wealth”, he said, it becomes a “seductive and merciless idol.” That rescue occurs when we “return to the austere words of the Divine Master: ‘For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?'”
Finally, John Paul II unveiled for his listeners an important understanding of the Incarnation, that Jesus, the “Divine Worker of Nazareth” also reminds us that ‘life is more than food’ and that work is for man, not man for work. What makes a life great is not the entity of gain, nor the type of profession, or the level of the career. Man is worth infinitely more than the goods he produces or possesses.”
What a profound and truly liberating message for us all to consider on this Labor Day! The Catholic Catechism instructs us: “Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat.”
“Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.
“In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work….. Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and beneficiary. By means of his labor man participates in the work of creation. Work united to Christ can be redemptive.” (See,CCC # 2247 et.seq.)
A Catholic Christian vision of work views it in light of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: God became a human person! The early Church Father, Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), reflecting on the Incarnation, proclaimed “Whatever was not assumed was not healed!” The insight has the potential to revolutionize the way we view our own work!
The entirety of the human experience was assumed by Jesus Christ, including our labor, our human work – no matter what form that human work takes. It was transformed by Jesus Christ the worker! The Son of God worked. Even as a child he learned from Joseph, the carpenter, and worked with wood, with His Holy hands. Certainly he sweated, got dirty and even experienced tedium at times, but because He was in communion with His Heavenly Father all of his work was joined to the Father’s work.
That is the same relationship we now have with the Father through our Baptism into Jesus Christ. Certainly, this Jesus, whom who the author of Hebrews said “knew no sin” was not suffering its punishment when he engaged in that manual labor in the workshop of Nazareth! Though there is biblical support that the drudgery or “sweat” of work is connected to the fracture in the order of the universe occasioned by sin (see Gen 3:19). However work itself was NOT the punishment for sin.
Adam and Eve worked in the garden and it brought them great joy. For the Christian, work is meant to be a participation in the continuing redemptive mission of Jesus. Jesus viewed his entire life and mission as work. He was always doing the “work” of the One who sent Him (John 9:3-4). We are invited by grace to live in the same way.
The early Christians knew the dignity of all human work. Even their early worship became known as “liturgy” which literally meant the “work” of the Church. For them, the real world was not a place to be avoided – it was their workshop! They were there to bring all of its inhabitants to Baptism and inclusion in Christ and then prepare the real world for His Real return, through their prayer, their witness, their worship and their work.
The Incarnation, the saving Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, what we call the “Paschal mystery” – began a process of transformation- not only in His followers, but also in the cosmos created through Him and for Him. In fact, creation is now being re-created in Him. The work of Jesus’ redemption continues through the Church – which is placed in that creation as a seed of its transfiguration.
This view is part of what St. Paul calls the “plan” and a “mystery” of God, to bring all things together under heaven and on earth in Christ (see, e.g. Eph 1: 9-10). All things were created in Christ (see Col 1:15-20), and are now being re-created as His work continues through His Body, the Church, of which we are members.
For the Christian, “work” is an invitation to participate in that extraordinary plan, when it is joined to Jesus Christ. No matter what we are doing we are, as the Apostle wrote, to “do it as unto the Lord” (see Col 3). Our work then changes “the world”, both within us and around us. This means all work – not just the so called “spiritual” or “religious” stuff, has redemptive value.
Remember, Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, did not just do what we too often think of as the “spiritual” stuff during his earthly ministry. All human work sanctifies and changes the world which God still loves. St. Paul captured the hope of all creation when, in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans he reminded us that all of creation “groans” for the full revelation of the sons and daughters of God. We can have a new relationship with the entire created order – beginning now- because we live in the Son, through whom and for whom it was all created and is now being re-created.
Let us ask the Holy Spirit to renew our minds concerning all human work. (Romans 12:2) When Jesus ascended He promised he would not “leave us orphans”. (John 14:8) Jesus now lives in us and we now live in Him, through the Holy Spirit. He has made it possible for us to begin to live our entire life differently, every single day, through the grace which is poured out through the Holy Spirit. We are living in an age which desperately needs a vibrant living Christian witness of the dignity, meaning and true value of all human work – one which is rooted in a rediscovery of the dignity of the human person. Let’s offer it to them by living a Christian approach to work in our own daily lives.
Deacon Keith A. Fournier is the Director of Deacon Formation for the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. He also serves the Diocese as General Legal Counsel and the Bishop Gorman Catholic School as the Dean of Catholic Identity. He and his wife Laurine have five grown children and seven grandchildren, He is also a constitutional lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. He has long been active at the intersection of faith, values and culture.