Everybody complains about work, just as everybody complains about the weather.
If our work is demanding, we gripe because it’s too hard. If it’s effortless, we whine that it’s boring.
I have a friend who calls this the Law of Conservation of Discontent. In certain areas of life, our dissatisfaction can be neither created nor destroyed. It’s just there — always looking for a place to land.
It often lands in the place where we work.
So what on earth are we doing when we celebrate Labor Day?
It’s not on the Church calendar, but Labor Day has been a federal holiday since 1894 — and I’ve never known anyone who refused the day off on principle. We may complain about our jobs every other day of the year, but on that first Monday of September we dutifully take the time to honor the very laboriousness of our labor.
And it’s worthy of our honor. As much as we complain about work, we don’t like to be without it.
Yet, there’s more to it than the paycheck. Our own José H. Gómez wrote a rather amazing essay some years ago, titled “All You Who Labor: Towards a Spirituality of Work for the 21st Century.” If you have the time, I recommend that you read the whole thing.
He points out that Christians and Jews were almost alone, in ancient times, in their positive attitude about work. Sure, they complained, just as we do. But they saw work as something essentially good. It’s what God did in creating the universe, and at the end of creation he rested from his labors. From the first pages of the Bible, then, work is portrayed as a godly activity.
The major figures of the Old Testament were laborers. Abel and Abraham were herdsmen. Noah was a farmer. The virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 weaves wool, tends a garden and sells what she produces.
The major figures of the New Testament were also hard workers. Peter, James and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. Paul was a tentmaker. Most importantly, Jesus, like his father Joseph, was a craftsman, a carpenter.
This may seem unremarkable to you, but Archbishop Gomez points out that the Jewish-Christian attitude toward work was unusual — and even unique — in the ancient world. The greatest of the pagans — Plato, Aristotle, Cicero — all had contempt for physical labor. Their ideal life consisted of unmoored leisure.
Yet, Christians worshipped Jesus, who said: “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.”
When God became man, he became a man who worked hard, first as a carpenter and then as a teacher. He came to share our lot and our life — and he came to share his lot and life with us.
Ever since our baptism, we live in him and he lives in us. When we do any honest work, he is working in us and he endows our work with a divine power. As we go about our tasks, we are creating the world anew. We are co-creators with Jesus. And we are redeeming the world with him. Insofar as our work is arduous — insofar as it makes us feel like complaining — it is redemptive. It is our share in Jesus’ cross and we can “offer it up” in atonement for sins. This is the dignity we have as children of God. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).
And that’s true even when I go to work! I’d say that’s something to celebrate.
I think most of us love the work we do, especially when we know we’re doing it well. My mom and dad were both schoolteachers, and I certainly heard them complain about the demands of the job. But I knew they loved what they did. I could see it in their dedication, their attention to detail. I could see it even in their complaints. They wanted their students to excel — and they wanted it more than the students did!
In this, as in so many things, my parents set a godly and Godlike example for me. They taught me to work hard. They taught me to give myself in love through the work I do.
They taught me by deeds what I see also in the words of Archbishop Gomez — “a Spirituality of Work for the 21st Century.”