My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Last Monday our nation observed the national holiday known as Labor Day. For many people, the topic of "labor" was noticed mainly insofar as it was a day free from work. But before the subject recedes too far from our minds, I would like to take this opportunity to offer some reflections on the theological significance of human work. After all, if work is understood as nothing more than the performance of tasks in order to get paid, we will have a hard time seeing a deeper meaning as a reason for our toil and our labors will be viewed as no more than drudgery to be endured until they are completed.
People are not robots programmed simply to perform tasks. The Bible tells us that there is indeed a profoundly theological significance to our labors; that is, our work finds it ultimate meaning in reference to God. The Book of Genesis tells us of God's work in creating the universe and bringing order out of chaos (Gen. 1:1-2). God made human beings in his image, after his likeness, gave them dominion over all creatures and placed them on earth in order to subdue it (Gen. 1:26-28). In this sense, human beings are seen as participating in God's work of bringing order to the world and sharing in his work of creation. Psalm 127 reinforces this notion that human work is inextricably connected to the work of God: "Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build."
In his encyclical letter On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote, "This description of creation, which we find in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis, is also in a sense the first 'gospel of work.' For it shows what the dignity of work consists of: it teaches that man ought to imitate God, his Creator, in working, because man alone has the unique characteristic of likeness to God. Man ought to imitate God both in working and in resting, since God wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest" (25).
We need to keep this in mind when we think about going to Mass on Sunday: participation in Sunday Mass is not just an obligation to avoid mortal sin, as important as that is, but also is an imitation of the example given to us by God in keeping the Lord's Day holy.
Blessed Pope John Paul II also wrote, "Awareness that man's work is a participation in God's activity ought to permeate, as the (Second Vatican) Council teaches, even 'the most ordinary everyday activities.' ... The knowledge that by means of work man shares in the work of creation constitutes the most profound motive for undertaking its various sectors" (25).
Farm work also received some special attention from the Holy Father: "Agricultural work involves considerable difficulties, including unremitting and sometimes physical exhausting effort and a lack of appreciation on the part of society. ... Thus it is necessary to proclaim and promote the dignity of work, of all work but especially of agricultural work, in which man so eloquently 'subdues' the earth he has received as a gift from God and affirms his 'dominion' in the visible world" (21).
Jesus himself gave particular prominence to human work as a participation in the activity of God as Creator through his own experience of working as a carpenter (cf. Mark 6:2-3 and Matthew 13:55). St. Paul also addressed the value of work in several of his letters (cf., 2 Thess 3:8; 1 Cor. 9:6-14; Gal. 6:6; and 2 Thess. 3:9-12).
A good concrete example for lay people of sanctifying the everyday life of work was described by a laundry worker, who said that before he came to understand the concept of "sanctification of work," when he was cleaning shirts in his dad's laundry, he "would often let little stains pass by, especially if they were under the collar or someplace hard to reach. It was too much hard work, and I would tell myself that if anyone ever complained, I could always say that I hadn't seen the stain." Now that he tries to bring holiness into his work, he says that he takes his work much more seriously. He tries to "get out all the stains, however tiny or hard to see." He summed up this approach very well, saying, "I realize that I'm not just cleaning the shirt for the client, but for God." Thus, the central idea is that all work, even the most menial or hidden, is ultimately for God.
The fact that work is difficult is related to its connection to original sin, as God said to the woman, "I will intensify your toil in childbearing," and to the man God said, "Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life" (Gen. 3:16-17).
There is a salvific aspect to the pain of human work, as Blessed Pope John Paul II taught: "The Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of 'the new heavens and the new earth' in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work" (27).
May God give us this grace. Amen.