For over a century, Americans have celebrated Labor Day on the first Monday in September. This national holiday was established in the 1880s for two reasons:
- To mark the irreplaceable role of the American worker in making this country prosperous and strong; and
- To have time to attend speeches and events on the spiritual and educational aspects of work, the worker and the good that comes from work.
While in many places, the spiritual and educational aspects of this holiday have been underemphasized – displaced, ironically, by a day off from doing what precisely the nation is celebrating: work – Labor Day remains an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the meaning of human work, and specifically our own work, not only for the good of our country, but also in God’s divine plan.
But the most important part of work was not its “transitive” function of perfecting God’s material universe in cultivating the land, raising animals, and even, in modern times, making computer chips and live-saving medicines. It was the “intransitive” purpose of bringing God’s great work – the human person – to perfection. Work done well gives the human person the opportunity to cultivate all the various hidden talents and potentials God has implanted in him – physical, intellectual, and spiritual – which are far greater than those He has inscribed in the earth.
So great was Jesus’ appreciation for human work in God’s divine plan that he could not stop using it as the proper analogy for his preaching. In his teaching, he favorably mentions shepherds, farmers, doctors, sowers, householders, servants, stewards, merchants, laborers, soldiers, cooks, tax collectors and scholars and many more. He compares the work of the apostolate to the manual work of harvesters and fishermen.
Jesus did not merely praise ordinary human work but shared in it. He spent the vast majority of his life in Nazareth as a manual laborer. His fellow Nazarenes knew him as a “construction work” [the carpenter’s son]. Following his foster-father, Jesus entered into the world of human work, not as a “cover” until his “real work” would begin, but precisely to redeem noble human work in his process of redeeming the human person. He called all of his listeners, of whatever noble profession, to be saints. A few he called to leave their fishing boats or tax-charts behind to proclaim the Gospel. The vast majority he called to proclaim the Gospel by living the good news right where they were. That’s still what Jesus does today.
Most of his followers are called to live out their discipleship and apostolate, their vocation and their mission, in the family and in the workplace. One’s desk, or sewing machine, or kitchen, or chalkboard, or operating room, or workbench or boat, is meant to become an altar which sanctifies not only what is given to God in work, but the giver as well. It is there that the vast majority of men and women are called to be sanctified and sanctify others through showing the original dignity and meaning of human work.
Work is not principally about earning a paycheck, but about serving and loving others. When work takes on this meaning, the perfection of the human person continues, the workplace is evangelized, and God’s work is advanced.
On this Labor Day weekend, a diligent construction worker from Nazareth waves to each of us with calloused hands and says, “Come, follow me!”
About the Author
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012.