Today’s Feast of St. Joseph the Worker was instituted in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a Catholic liturgical response to the Communist version of the May Day celebration. But, celebrating work seems a bit oxymoronic, doesn’t it? Didn’t work start after the Fall of Adam and Eve?
St. John Paul II, the Pope who emerged from within the Communist world, in his powerful encyclical, Laborem Exercens, argues that human labor is not in itself a punishment for sin, but rather our participation in God’s creating, governing and redeeming “labor.” This is why St. Paul calls us synergoi Theou, God’s co-workers (1 Cor. 3:9). In our work we are invited to participate in God’s labor that, in the beginning, brought the universe into existence; that sustains and orders the cosmos at every moment; and redeems us fallen creatures from the corruption of sin and death.
Work is not merely a means of achieving wealth and capital, but rather is good in itself when carried out in concert with the moral law in service to the authentic and common good of humanity, along with the due reverence required of us as stewards of the world’s limited natural resources.
In addition, work is a school of virtue that allows us to perfect our gifts to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor. In this sense what is most important in my work is not what I produce and achieve, but who I become as I work and toil and make a living by the sweat of my brow. Here I recall Mother Teresa’s oft quoted words: “God calls us not to success, but only to faithfulness.” Success is outside of us, but “faithful” is who we are.
The effect of sin on work, as St. John Paul notes, is to make work into toil and drudgery. Sin has dis-integrated our moral character, alienating us from work’s genuine goods and ends. Those alienations are many and varied. I think, for example, about the temptation to become enslaved to work, as the Hebrews were in Egypt. As slaves we can unjustly compromise and fail to attend to the goods of leisure, like worship, friendship, marriage or family life. Or I think of the temptation to complain endlessly about the hardships of work, and to miss the immensely valuable grace planted in the heart of our struggles and hardships. It’s only struggle that grows virtue and permits us to collaborate intimately in Jesus’ hard redemptive work.
In regard to this last point, it’s interesting to note that the vice of sloth is not simply to be equated with inactivity (which can sometimes be very good and necessary!). Rather, sloth is identified with avoidance of the difficult, arduous, tedious, laborious goods that our vocations so often demand of us. The slothful seek the path of least resistance, and so forsake both the small and great heroisms daily life can afford us. The best way to overthrow sloth, I’ve found, is simply to identify those things I like to do the least and then do them first, best, and most often. Such a first resolution, mixed up with divine grace, can do wonders in dismantling our pleasure-seeking ego’s tyranny over seed of divine charity that struggles to grow within our hearts.
Let me end with a final word on a subject dear to my heart, the lay vocation. The call of the lay faithful — those who have been baptized into Christ — is above all else to be fully engaged in the secular world, animating it with the spirit of the Gospel as salt, light, and leaven. Today, on this feast, I would add that it is principally by their labor in marriage and family life, in culture and in politics, in business and economics — in all the various arenas of human work — that the laity discover their way of perfection; their path to holiness; their journey to union with God laboring in Christ. Let me leave you with my favorite quote from the Second Vatican Council:
“For besides intimately linking them to His life and His mission, He also gives them a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them.
For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.
Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.”
So let’s celebrate today the gift of labor, and the saving power Jesus’ cross has infused into your thankless, tedious, and sweaty toil.