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Labor Day Reflections


“Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck, your profession is what you're put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh

Today in the United States, Labor Day is recognized as a National Holiday. Instituted in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, it was adopted as a gesture of reconciliation to the American worker as a result of a series of strikes, boycotts and walkouts brought on by unfair and unethical treatment of workers.

In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, American workers faced hazardous, sometimes even fatal working conditions, required in many instances to work up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week simply to make enough money to provide for their families. The lack of a just wage compelled some families to send their children, oftentimes as young as five and six years old, to work long hours to help put food on the table. Businesses and employers remained largely ambivalent to the plight of the working class, their eyes fixed squarely on the bottom line.

It wasn’t until the American Railroad Union organized a protest on June 26, 1894. Violence ensued as a result of this walk-out and the situation devolved into such a violent clash that it crippled railroad travel nationwide. Troops were dispatched in order to break up the strike, leading to the death of more than a dozen workers. In an effort to extend an olive branch while recognizing the importance of human labor, Congress in 1894 passed an act that would recognize Labor Day as a national holiday. President Cleveland swiftly signed into law the very same year. “Honor lies in honest toil,” President Cleveland said at the time, a truth that resonates every bit as much in the year 2022 as it did nearly 130 years ago.

On Labor Day, the Catholic Church takes a moment to pray for the sanctification of human labor. The capacity to engage in such human labor has been instilled within man and woman since the beginning of the creation of the world. As author Timothy Keller points out, “Jesus came into this world not as a philosopher or a general but as a carpenter. All work matters to God.”

In today’s first reading from Genesis (2:4-9, 15), we see that God created man and woman and places them in the Garden of Eden with the instruction to till the garden and to keep it, to take care for it. God instills in creation the power to grow, develop, reproduce, and to bear fruit. By our labor, we cooperate with God‘s grace. We do not create something out of nothing of course,, for that is far beyond our reach. We instead work with what God has given us, cooperating with his grace to bring to fruition that which we can.

Somewhere along the way however, we seem to have once again allowed exploitation to become far too commonplace. All around the world, and certainly in this country as well, we see injustice in the workplace, often times grave injustice. Slavery was an atrocity, this we know, yet it remains far too evident in our world today. Unjust wages, ghastly working conditions, sexual harassment and other forms of blatant exploitation in the workplace, the list goes on. These are not the tactics and ways of a person who loves God, for to love God means to love his children too.

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Saint Josemaria Escriva perhaps more than anyone was adamant about the necessity of bringing Christ into the workplace Even if we aren’t engaging in any of the unsavory aforementioned behaviors, we must speak out against them. Our voice matters. As Catholics, we must take it upon ourselves to help formulate the culture of our work environments. We must take the lead in this endeavor, for we are called to be salt and light in a world that has become spiritually flavorless and dimly lit in matters pertaining to decency and fairness.

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Tirelessly she labored in our Lord’s vineyard, tending to the marginalized and forgotten in our midst. On this Labor Day, let us remember and give thanks for this woman who worked not for the food which perishes, but instead for the food which endures to everlasting life (John 6:27). “Be kind and merciful,” she was always so quick to say. “Let no one ever come to you without coming away better and happier.” We too can approach our work with this joyful and selfless attitude. I leave you with the words of Martin Luther King Jr, who said ”All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

“Lord give success to the work of our hands.” ~ Psalm 90

For more thoughts on Labor Day and the value and virtue of work, please revisit my Hub from last year on the topic:

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