In the United States, the first Monday of September is Labor Day. The day, first celebrated in 1894, honors the work-force in America and their contributions to society.
It was a natural outgrowth of the Industrial and American Revolutions, as well as the 19th-century labor movement, that the value of the laborer who produced the goods that modern society depended on would be honored.
But it really isn't a new idea. In fact, the Catholic Church has been teaching about the value of human work from the beginning.
The Catechism defines the value of human work as participation both in the Father's work of creation, and the redemptive work of Christ:
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 (Gn 1:28). Hence work is a duty: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thes 3:10; cf. 1 Thes 4:11). Work honors the Creator's gifts and the talents received from Him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work (cf. Gn 3:14-19) 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 (cf. Rom 5:19). Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ. (#2427)
As we are made in the image and likeness of God, all good things we undertake reflect Him. We can create things through our love and through our work only because we are given the grace to do so. In fact, just as the Catechism teaches, we honor God through our work by applying ourselves to it, and offering it to Him. When I was in Catholic school, we wrote “JMJ +” for “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” or “AMDG” (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam For the greater glory of God) across the top of each page, indicating that our work was dedicated to God for His glory. God Himself worked in the act of creating the universe, and continues to work in creating new life, new art, new beauty, each day. We participate in the creation when we ourselves take the creation that the Father has granted us dominion over and fashion it into things that are beautiful, useful, or profitable for men.
Just as work is a participation in the creative power of the Father, so it is also participation in the redemptive work of the Son. Not all work is pleasurable, and some work is very hard, even dangerous. In the toil and suffering that our work may bring, we may glimpse a small aspect of Christ's suffering, and in so doing, join ourselves to Him. In this way, we are like Simon of Cyrene, assisting our Lord in carrying His burden of our sin. To be sure, Christ does not need us to carry His Cross His strength is unlimited but for our own good, He allows us to join our sufferings to His.
In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul the Great expands on this idea of the toil of hard work collaborating with Christ:
Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the Cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform (#27).
To be a disciple of Christ is to conform ourselves through the work of the Spirit to Christ. This means that not only do we have a share in the rewards of Resurrection, but we also have a place on the Cross. Christ Himself tells us we must “take up our cross” (Mk 8:34) to follow Him. Through the sweat of the brow, if we give that labor to the Lord, we can become closer to Him and share in His glory.
Work, then, no matter how mundane or ordinary, is a miraculous and wondrous sacramental on our journey with and to Christ. The Incarnation of God and His entry into human history elevated every human activity above the ordinary. Our recreation, procreation, and vocations are now participation in the life of God because He has adopted us through Baptism and redeemed us through the blood of His Son. Properly given back to God, our labor is a precious offering to the One Who makes the work possible in the first place.
Sort of a fitting gift from a carpenter's son, don't you think?
Mickey Addison is a career military officer, and has been a catechist at the parish level since 2000. He and his wife have been married for 19 years and they have two children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was previously published on the Rosary Army’s website and is used by permission.