School is officially back in full swing. The boys have put in over a week of class, competed in a number of games, and are getting ready to audition for the fall play. Several have started to play the game of “How late can I leave home and still make the first bell?”
Many, of course, are already engaging in the time-honored tradition of griping: about their homework, the rigor of their practices, and the chores they’re expected to do at home.
In doing so, they join their elders in lamenting the necessity of work. Work can certainly be drudgery, and with the punishment of Adam, we Christians can find in the book of Genesis evidence that work is essentially a result of Original Sin.
But we would be wrong.
As we prepare to celebrate Labor Day, the holiday set aside to commemorate the contributions of working people to society, we do well to reflect on the nature of work.
While work is often seen as, at best, a “necessary evil,” our faith reminds us that it is, in fact, a positive good, written into the very nature of humanity. If we look at the creation narratives in Genesis as a whole, we can see that when God created our first parents--before the Fall--His first instructions were to “[b]e fertile and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen. 1:28).
In short, to go to work.
In addition to affirming the basic rights of laborers--to organize unions, have safe work environments, fair wages, etc.--Pope St. John Paul II wrote of the dignity of work in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem exercens. In what may well be the definitive exploration of labor from the Christian perspective, John Paul speaks of work in all its forms--from that of farmers and factory workers, to that of medical professionals, to that of academics and politicians, to that of parents--as not only enabling a person to adapt and transform nature to meet her or his needs, but also to “achieve fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, [to become] more a human being.” (LE #9).
This is because in welcoming and raising children and in the work we do outside of the home, we reflect and imitate the God in Whose image we are made. Using our intellect and skill, we join in the work God began with the creation of the world. We become, in effect, co-creators with Him.
Honest labor contributes to the common good of society. The business manager who guides their team well enables them to contribute their creativity to their company and provide for their families' material needs. The laborer and tradesperson help to build the infrastructure necessary for a well-run society. The parent creates a home: the bedrock of civilization.
Moreover, John Paul notes:
All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked with toil. The Book of Genesis
expresses it in a truly penetrating manner: the original blessing of work contained in the
very mystery of creation and connected with man’s elevation as the image of God
is contrasted with the curse that sin brought with it. (LE #27)
Sin has tainted the human perception of work. Since the Fall, our experience of it has been fraught with frustration. But even in its difficulties, it remains a blessing because it allows us to offer up the mental and physical exhaustion of our day-to-day labor, and, in doing so, join with Christ, who presented His sufferings to the Father on behalf of others.
Honest labor, whatever form it takes, is a gift from and to God. It is, at its core, an act of self-sacrificing love. And it is in this love, and only in this love, that we find true happiness.
A final note: as noble as work may be, there remains a corresponding need for and right to rest: even God, Genesis notes, took a break after His work of creation. Self-sacrificial love implies something of the self to give. We can’t pour from an empty cup - we need to replenish. Thus, the importance of the weekend and Labor Day.
So this weekend, as we fight over the last brat at the family picnic, grieve the end of summer, or compete in the last volleyball game of the season, we should be sure to rest up.
We have work to do.
A.M.D.G / B.V.M.H.