“God blessed [Adam and Eve] and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Gen 1:28).
Among the first words we have from God to humanity is the command to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. The earth has been entrusted to mankind and, as Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si, “our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.” While we can see this stewardship as a necessary component to our commitment to protecting the earth, it has another meaning as well.
God called men and women to work. It is not simply a cause of the Fall that we have to work. Rather, it is “a fundamental dimension of our human existence” (See John Paul II’s Encyclical on Human Work). Work allows man to be a co-creator with God. It is an expression of our human dignity that we have the ability to create, to build, to invent, to make, and to repair. In fact, it is easy to see how important work is when someone loses a job or retires. There is a sense of pride and purpose which comes from our work.
It is not a coincidence that Jesus was raised by a man who knew what it was to work. St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers because his instilled in Jesus a human understanding of work. Joseph was a carpenter. We can think of him making tables and chairs but it is just as likely that he was a large-scale carpenter for major building projects in the Judean region of the Roman Empire. He worked to provide for his family but also to use the gifts and talents which had been entrusted to him by God. He taught Jesus his profession and our Lord worked side-by-side with Joseph.
Jesus was not ashamed to be known by his neighbors as “the carpenter’s son” (cf. Mt. 13:55). Until he was thirty years old, Jesus’ life was hidden in the obscurity of day-to-day work. He was God and he was willing to work in obscurity. This is the spiritual impetus for the contemplative vocation: to work in silence, unknown and often unappreciated, knowing that God is transforming the work of their hands for the salvation of the world.
There can be danger of seeing faith as a luxury of those who have more leisure or education but Catholicism has always been the religion of the working men and women. It has valued hard and honest labor, knowing that God rewards in heaven faithfulness here on earth. The Catholic Church defended the dignity of workers during the Industrial Revolution, condemned the perversion of work from Marxist ideologies, and supported the rights of workers to unionize in the United States and other countries in the 19thand 20thcenturies. Even today, the Church is a leading voice around the globe for the rights of those who make their living by the sweat of their brow.
Work takes many forms and those who commit themselves to raising a family, working primarily in the home, have no less a right to this dignity. What could be more important that raising children? What would be more eternally efficacious that helping one’s family grow in virtue? In our aggressively secular culture, this work takes on a special characteristic in ensuring that the home is the place where children know that they are loved and valued for who they are not for what they can do.
A particular danger in our society is overworking. While we can find meaning and value in our work, it can never replace the importance of relationships in one’s life. First and foremost, one’s relationship with God cannot give way to work. Only under the gravest circumstances – where there would be severe financial hardship or one has to perform critically important services – could one miss Sunday Mass for work without harm to one’s soul. St. Paul’s counsel to the Colossians is to do any work not in and for itself but for a deeper reason: Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the due payment of the inheritance” (3:23). By seeing our work for the Lord, we prevent it from becoming an idol and corrupting our relationship with God and others.
I hope you got to celebrate Labor Day this past weekend and listen to one of the great Alabama songs. But even beyond the holiday, I hope you seek opportunities to take a rest from your work, and thank God for the gift to be a co-creator with him.