HAPPY LABOR DAY
Although the above greeting is a week late, it does make sense to continue our reflection on what Labor Day is, and why we celebrate it in our country. For over a century, Americans have celebrated Labor Day on the first Monday in September. This national holiday was established in the 1880s for two reasons: to mark the irreplaceable role of the American worker in making this country prosperous and strong; and to have time to attend speeches and events on the spiritual and educational aspects of work, the worker and the good that comes from work. From this we see that although it is a secular holiday, instituted into our culture through the work of labor unions, we Christians are called to sanctify all things, including culture. We do this by honoring the dignity of human labor, and so we honor the work that is done by all men and women throughout history, and even before.
In the first command in the Bible, the Lord gave the human person the mission to co-operate (work together) with him in bringing His work of creation to fulfillment: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish ... the birds ... and every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). God, who worked for the “six days” of creation and whom Jesus says “is still working” (Jn 5:17), made man and woman in his own image and likeness and called them to share in this work.
Christ himself was a carpenter’s son, Sts. Peter, James and John were fishermen, St. Paul was a tent maker; again and again we find saints who were laborers during their time on earth. It is through our work and toil that we attain dominion over creation, as instructed in Genesis. This call to work has roots to the beginning of time, and continues to this day. Although the work is different- agricultural workers, day laborers, factory workers, nurses, doctors, stay at home moms and dads, construction workers, students and scientists to name a few; we all know some type of work. And that is a good thing.
In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that work itself is good for mankind. It is good in that it allows us to purchase things for life, but it is not principally about earning a paycheck, but about serving God and others. More importantly work corresponds to our human dignity, and even increases it. Through work, we transform nature, adapt it to our needs, and achieve fulfillment as a human being; in a sense becoming ‘more a human being’ (Laborem Exercens). Without this conception of work, it can be simply tedious and a struggle; or work can be used to punish or oppress other humans through such things as forced labor, concentration camps and exploitation of workers solely for the profit of others etc. So as Christians we come to celebrate Labor Day, not as a day off from our toil, but as a day to celebrate work itself, and to reflect how our work, no matter what it may be, is a way to grow in holiness and imitation of our Creator, the first worker. In this light, we see that it is more than just a day, but it becomes how we view human labor throughout the year and how we participate in building the kingdom.