As we celebrate Labor Day this Year of St. Joseph, he is the perfect one to have before us as a model of a worker who knew the true meaning and dignity of labor. There are many depictions and statues of St. Joseph holding a carpenter square reminding us of his labor as that of a carpenter providing sustenance for the Holy Family. He is an important reminder to us of the value of labor which is a sharing in the very creativity of God Himself. As Pope Francis points out in his Apostolic Letter, Patris corde (With a father’s heart), announcing the Year of Saint Joseph, “St. Joseph’s work reminds us that God Himself, in becoming man, did not distain work.” In fact, we can go even further in stating that God in His creativity extols the basic dignity of labor.
We are first introduced to work at the very beginning of time itself. Even though God is timeless and exists for all eternity, time began when He created the world. The Book of Genesis opens, "In the beginning...God created the heavens and earth... " (Gen 1:1). Genesis then goes on to describe how, once God created light and darkness to mark time by means of the passage of days, He went on to create the rest of the world including the pinnacle of His creation, man and woman, to whom He entrusted His creation. Genesis then tells us, "Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken" (Gen 2:2).
When we are introduced to God, He begins time by working. Indeed, His work is one of love, as He exists for all eternity as love, even if He chose not to create. Labor is an imitation of the very life of God Himself which is love itself. Some of us grew up believing that work is the result of original sin which came into the world because the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, turned against God and rejected His creation. We had the impression that if it were not for this original sin, there would be no work or school, only long weekends with nothing to do. Nothing is further from the truth. What came into the world through original sin was the pain, distress and agony that would now be caused by work. However, work, as the means by which we would pass the days God created for us, was there from the beginning as a good and noble expression of our being made in the image and likeness of God.
Jesus had the greatest respect for work because He understood its true nature as rooted in His Father. He realized that we spend most of our time in work and reflected this in the parables He told. So many of the Lord's parables dealt with labor and encompass a wide variety of occupations, including those of farmers, businessmen, realtors, and fishermen. He had a keen understanding of how time passed as work is in progress. He told the parable of the workers hired early and later in the day who all received the same just wage to the consternation of some (cf. Mt 20:1 - 6). In this parable, He extolled the dignity of work as fundamental to human nature, since providing work was just as important as providing a just wage.
In the Gospels we read of Jesus’ own labor as He worked miracles. Jesus explained that His work was united to that of His Father as He told us, "My Father is at work until now, so I am at work" (Jn 5:17). It is obvious that He understood the passage of His earthly existence as bound to His work when He said, "We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (Jn 9:4 - 5). Indeed, as the light of the world, Christ is the one who gives meaning to our existence, especially in His Cross and Resurrection.
Jesus knew that time could be wasted and even wasted in work. Work that is not based in God, not respectful of the nature of the human person, not carried out with love or simply carried out for the sole purpose of profit, is indeed a waste of time and ultimately leads to the frustration caused by original sin. This is why the Lord told us to keep our work properly focused. He exhorted, "Do not work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (Jn 6:27). Here, Jesus spoke about the Eucharist and pointed out that His Cross and Resurrection is His work that would bring the passing of time into eternity. His Real Presence in the Eucharist is the food which gives meaning to life. All of our work in this world, if it is to have meaning, must be focused on this. Otherwise, we are wasting our time.
Jesus’ appreciation of work came from His Heavenly Father whose work He had come to fulfill in time. It also came from His earthly father, St. Joseph, who taught Jesus, in His human nature, much about the nature of work. Jesus was referred to as "the carpenter" (Mk 6:3), because of his intimate association with Joseph, the carpenter, who exemplified the importance and dignity of work. St. Joseph passed his days building as a carpenter, both the world and the Holy Family by supporting them through his work. Joseph provided bread for the one who is the Bread of Life. Because of Joseph's work, we also can spend our days working for that bread which leads to eternal life.
Labor Day is the day we set aside in this country to celebrate the importance of work and the dignity of the worker. In other countries, May 1 is set aside for the same purpose as International Workers' Day or Labor Day as well. How fitting that we celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker, on May 1. As we celebrate Labor Day during this Year of St. Joseph, may we more appreciate the value and dignity of the work in which we are involved as a very reflection of the life of God in creative love. As Pope Francis reflects in Patris corde: “Work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten in the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion. … Working persons, whatever their job may be, are cooperating with God Himself, and in some way become creators of the world around us. The crisis of our time, which is economic, social, cultural, and spiritual, can serve as a summons to all of us to rediscover the value, the importance of the necessity of work for bringing about a new normal from which no one is excluded.”
A Blessed Labor Day to all! St. Joseph, pray for us!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
September 3, 2021