REFLECTION: On Labor Day, Human Work Made New
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In the United States we celebrate the first Monday of September as Labor Day. It is a day to reflect and relax.The Catholic Church proclaims the dignity, meaning and redemptive value of all human work.
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - During the last years of his service to the Church and the world, the late, beloved Servant of God John Paul II addressed an assembly of the leaders of the "Catholic Action" movement in Italy on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. He used an extraordinary term, referring to what he called the "gospel of work". I wrote an article on this address years ago. Sadly, I heard from some Protestant Christians who misunderstood the theme, thinking that the Holy Father was speaking of "works". Nothing could have been more inaccurate. Rather, he was proclaiming a deeper meaning of the effects of grace on the entirety of our human experience; that in and through Jesus Christ, all human work has been transformed.
In proclaiming this gospel of work, John Paul developed a theme that is rooted in the Sacred Scriptures, expounded upon at length in the Christian Tradition and is desperately needed in this age. In 1981 he authored an Encyclical letter entitled "On Human Work" which beautifully presented this Christian vision of the dignity and meaning of human work. We live in an age that has all but lost this Christian vision of the meaning of work. This is not a new problem. It is a part of a larger social and individual malady, a bad fruit of the rupture of human integrity and solidarity 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 more "time" for leisure and freedom but sadly has failed to deliver. To come to a new understanding of the dignity of human labor requires what St Paul rightly called a "renewal of the mind" (See, Romans 12:2). Pope John Paul told those assembled that because work "has been profaned by sin and contaminated by egoism," it is an activity that "needs to be redeemed." He reminded those gathered 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" 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, the "servant of the servants of God" proclaimed 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."
This "gospel of work" needs to be proclaimed anew this Labor Day. Our Catholic Catechism helps us with these insights: "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 any one 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."
A Catholic understanding positions work in the broader context of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: God became a human person! The dignity of this God become man gives even more dignity to all human work. The early Church Father and Bishop Irenaeus, reflecting on the profound implications of the Incarnation, expressed it well: "Whatever was not assumed was not healed!" The entirety of our human experience was assumed by Jesus--yet without sin (see Hebrews 4:15). Work was forever transformed by Christ the worker! The Son of God worked. Even as a child he learned from Joseph, the carpenter, and worked with His hands. Certainly he sweated, got dirty and even experienced tedium at times, but He was in a relationship with His Heavenly Father and his work was joined to the Father's work. That is the same relationship we have with His Father. Certainly, He who knew no sin was not suffering its punishment! Though there is biblical support that the toil and drudgery or "sweat" of work is connected to the fracture in the order of the universe which was occasioned by sin (see Gen 3:19) work itself is not the punishment for sin. Rather, for the Christian, work can become 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 do the same.
The early Christians knew this deeper meaning of human work. Even their early worship became known as "liturgy" which literally meant the "work" of the Church. 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 to prepare it for His return. The Incarnation, Saving life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the "Paschal mystery" began a process of transformation--not only in His followers, but also in the very cosmos created through Him and for Him... and now being redeemed in Him. The work of Jesus' redemption continues through His Body, the Church-- which is placed in that creation as a seed of its transfiguration. That work not only includes proclaiming the fullness of salvation and transformation (including a resurrected body) for all the baptized who persevere in Him, but an invitation to participate in ushering in the new heaven and new earth in a transformed creation, which even begins now. The unfolding of all of this is a part of what St. Paul calls a "plan" and a "mystery", to bring all things together under heaven and on earth in Him (e.g. Eph 1: 9-10).
All things were created in Christ (see Col 1:15-20), and are being re-created and redeemed as His work continues through His Body, the Church, of which we are members. The Christian's "work" is an invitation to participate in that extraordinary plan. No matter what we are doing as work we are to "do it as unto the Lord" (see Col 3). It changes the world, both within us and around us. That means all work--not just the "spiritual stuff." Remember, God Incarnate did not just do the "spiritual stuff." All human work sanctifies us and changes the world. St. Paul captures the hope of all creation when, in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans he reminds us that all of creation "groans" for the full revelation of the sons and daughters of God. We can have a new relationship to the entire created order - beginning now- because we live in the Son, through whom and for whom, it was all created and is being re-created. That is why this insight from the late beloved Servant of God is John Paul II is such "good news." There truly is a "gospel of work". Let us renew our minds, pledge to live this gospel of work and proclaim it in the way in which we engage in our labor. In His Ascension, Jesus did not leave us orphans. Rather, He lives in us and we now live in Him, in the communion of the Church. He has capacitated us to live differently through the Grace given to us in the Paschal mystery, poured out through the Holy Spirit and mediated by the Sacraments. We can live this "Gospel of Work" in an age which desperately needs a new living witness of its dignity, meaning and true value.
Happy Labor Day.
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