In the past few weeks, the United States has experienced intense political debate, racial tensions, two hurricanes, and a somber sixteenth anniversary of 9/11. In the throes of this month, it seems we lost something: Where did Labor Day go?
It might seem like a minor issue, but the holiday was hard-earned and offers our society some important lessons.
The holiday is meant to be a time to pause and honor work and workers. It was heavily promoted in the nineteenth century by trade unions and labor associations as a day set aside to celebrate the “average man” and the hard and dangerous work of so many laborers, especially in the factories and building projects of the northeast United States. It was not an easy observance to get passed, but in 1894 it finally became a federal holiday.
By extension in today’s world, Labor Day is a time for us to consider our own work, whatever it might be and wherever we might do it.
Work is a large part of our day. It shapes our lives and the lives of our loved ones. But do we consider its importance beyond compensation, benefits, and duties?
It’s worth remembering that work is for the human person, not the human person for work. We aren’t meant to live for work, but to work so that we might fully live. As the maxim goes: “We are human beings, not human doers.”
Perhaps some only see their work as a burden, while others allow their work to so absorb their entire lives that they have little life beyond it. Our work, however, is intended to be a means to a greater end. Our work is meant to open us up to a broader perspective of our world and a richer expression of life.
Within the Christian heritage, work is seen as a remedy to the consequences of our fall from grace. It’s a means to give order to our passions and structure to our lives. It calls us out of ourselves and our small world, gives us a relative schedule, disciplines our sloth, exposes other vices, and forces us to interact with others.
But our work goes beyond these disciplinarian measures to become a real collaboration of man and woman with God in caring for creation and raising the visible world to greater goodness. And so, through our work, we have an opportunity to give homage to God, grow in virtue, flourish in our talents, contribute to the good of others and to our society, as well as offer our work up in supplication for divine blessings upon specific needs and intentions.
And so, human work happens through us, who are created in God’s image. It’s a means for us to live virtue and extend beauty in our lives and the world around us. As Pope Francis teaches: “Work is precisely from the human being. It expresses his dignity of being created in the image of God. Therefore, it is said that work is sacred.”
Work becomes a way for us to reach a dignified livelihood on the material level but also on the social, cultural and spiritual level. By doing good and respectable work, whatever it might be, we help to edify ourselves and build up our society and the world around us.
Our work, born from strength given by our Creator, helps us to live according to his message of love and mercy in a public way. Our work provides us with the opportunity to make a contribution to creation and – either by personal or cyber interaction – to connect with people and to break a privatization of our lives and of our faith.
It reminds us that we are called to communion with creation, with other people, and that our faith should not be restricted to merely a house of worship. This expansive solidarity given by our work causes us to live what we claim to believe religiously, behaviorally, and socially.
Again, Pope Francis explains to us: “Work is part of God’s loving plan, we are called to cultivate and care for all the goods of creation and in this way participate in the work of creation! Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person…”
And so, as we are annually invited to reflect on our various forms of work on Labor Day (or a couple of weeks afterwards!), it’s helpful for us all to consider the worth and importance of our work and what contribution we are seeking to make to our world and society through it.