Toward a Christian Vision of Human Work On Labor Day
“C’Mon Six O’Clock,” the refrain began as soon as we got in the old panel truck to head into the Roxbury section of Dorchester, Massachusetts. It evolved into a greeting between fellow laborers as my Dad met his fellow workers entering the TV repair shop where we would spend our Saturdays. He, and all who worked along with him, hated their job.
I was 15 years old and “rode shotgun” in the repair truck when my father went out to deliver the televisions which had been repaired – or pick up the ones which had to be fixed. It was tedious work and often seemed to be a drudgery. But its emptiness did not come from the tasks, rather from the the attitude of those engaged in them.
My father’s “work ethic” was commendable. This was only one of several jobs which this hard working, blue collar, former Navy sailor worked to support our family. We were poor, but did we not know it. We had a place to live, food to eat, and we had one another. We sometimes went without, but he would never accept what he called back then “government cheese.”
So, we got by. My mother used to make gravy with every possible kind of meat which would later find its way onto bread when the meat ran out. I remember when I was very young, living in a brick tenement, when we would make what my Dad called “stone soup” with the neighbors and share what we had.
My father had parlayed what he had learned in the Navy into another skill. He fixed televisions and radios, back when they had tubes. He also did it “on the side” – and our apartment often had one or two in the course of repair. Though his willingness to work hard was commendable, and rubbed off on me, his view of work was less than desirable.
Especially it seemed, on Saturdays, when we drove into that dreary TV shop, in that dangerous section of the inner city. Thus the refrain became a joke – which was not at all funny. It also formed a memory and a framework which was not helpful.The refrain referred to the end of the work day and separated “work” from the rest of life, as if it were some sort of intruder.
However, early on, that experience led me to ask the right questions, “Was work just a necessary undertaking which took us away from what we really wanted to do? Was it meant to be so tedious? Was it something we did just for the money?” But, it took years to find the right answers to those very valid questions.
On this Labor Day weekend most of us take a break from what we call work. It is a unique secular holiday with profound Christian potential. Many gather for late summer cookouts and celebrations. Perhaps we get to sleep in a bit later than usual and relax from the frenzied pace of our contemporary pattern of living.
For many parents, Labor Day weekend marks the transition from the hectic pace of the summer to the new hectic pace of the school year. For Christians, Labor Day can – and should – be about much more than taking a break from work. We are invited to reflect upon the dignity of work, which is derived from the dignity of the worker.
The day presents us with an opportunity to examine how we view work. How do we understand our own labor in the light of what the Catholic 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.
During his last years, Saint John Paul II addressed a gathering of 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. Do we consider our work as good news? Or is it something we do – for a paycheck?
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 much of his writing and is worthy of consideration as we consider the dignity of work and the worker who engages in it:
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 Saint John Paul released an Encyclical letter entitled On Human Work which presents an inspired teaching on the Christian vision of the dignity of all human work – its true meaning and value, and the dignity of the worker who engages in it. In the introductory paragraph he defined the very word work:
(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.
Now that vision of human work is a far cry from “C’Mon Six O’Clock.”
We live in an age that has lost the understanding of dignity of human work – precisely because we have lost sight of the dignity of the human worker. This loss is one more bad fruit of the rupture which is wrought in every area of life because of the effects of sin.
The Catechism teaches us that “Man’s freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.” (CCC # 1739)
Sin is an abuse of human freedom. It is a wrong choice which can lead us to more and more wrong choices. The more we sin the more we lose our capacity to properly exercise our freedom by choosing what is good, true and beautiful. However, in the words of the Apostle Paul, it was “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).
So it is Jesus Christ who leads us to freedom because He frees us from the bondage and effects of sin. Then, as we learn to receive, respond to and cooperate with His grace, we begin to live differently.
Sin also infects our way of thinking. That is why we need to have our minds renewed. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” (Romans 12:2)
We need our minds renewed about human work!
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 quite different. However, 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 lies at the root of the contemporary culture of death and use; or, to use the wonderful phrase coined by Pope Francis, the Throwaway Culture. We need what St. Paul rightly called a renewal of the mind about human work.
Saint John Paul told the participants at that 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 in this hour.
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 reminded them that Jesus, the “Divine Worker of Nazareth” also reminds all of 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 liberating message for 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 Christian vision of work views it in light of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: God became a human person, a man like us! The early Church Father, Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), reflecting on the Incarnation, proclaimed “Whatever was not assumed was not healed!” The insight is profound and has the potential to revolutionize the way we view our own work!
The entire 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 meant to become the same relationship we have with the Father through our Baptism into Jesus Christ. Certainly, this Jesus, whom the author of the New Testament Letter to the 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. We need to be absolutely clear about this.
Adam and Eve worked in the garden and it brought them great joy. For the Christian, work is meant to become a participation in the continuing redemptive mission of Jesus, and His ongoing work. 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 now invited by grace to learn 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 means 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 yes, their work.
The Incarnation, the saving Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, 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 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. The Church, through her members, moves beyond the doors of her sanctuaries into the workplaces of the world, through you and me and how we live in the real world.
For the Christian, work is an invitation to participate in this 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. This mistaken notion of separating out the spiritual and the real often displays in us a failure to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation. All human work is holy, if it it is done in the Lord.
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 about work, in all of its manifestations. Let us ask for the grace we need to begin to live this gospel or good news of work in the way in which we engage in all human labor. Christians are invited to receive work as a gift – an actual invitation to participate in God’s loving, creative and redemptive work.
During his earthly ministry, after he had healed the paralyzed man on the Sabbath, Jesus told his critics, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (John 5:17) For all of who bear his Image and the name Christian, work can participate in that ongoing work, if we allow grace to convert us, to renew our minds.
Christians need to bear witness in the real world to the true value, purpose, meaning and dignity of all human work – just as we bear witness to the inherent value and dignity of every human worker. This is a vital part of our witness to an age which has lost its way.
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