It is Labor Day. Our temptation is to treat Labor Day simply as a day away from labor, an end-of-summer break. Labor Day is, of course, meant to be a celebration of the worker. But for Catholics, we can, and should, look a bit more deeply at what we might celebrate on such a day.
The history of Labor Day is the history of the struggle to reckon with the changing social difficulties brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Labor Day was born in the midst of violent revolts, riots, and protests, and it was a step in recognizing, at a fundamental level, the dignity of the worker in the emerging economy. It was an initial step in proclaiming that, even while the economic and technological machines may be improving and growing more efficient, the human worker himself cannot and must not be reduced to just another gear in the machine.
And so Labor Day was meant to celebrate the worker. Today, were you to ask why the worker is worth celebrating, you might be tempted to answer that he is to be valued for the results of work: prosperity, wealth, useful tools, products, and services. The worker, it might be thought, is to be prized for the products of the work. And while this is true in a sense—work is useful, and therefore workers are useful—to celebrate work and the worker primarily because they are useful is like celebrating marriage because it’s handy for making citizens or soldiers to defend the homeland.
The value of work — and the value of the worker — goes much deeper than the economic and societal benefits of work. Work is fundamentally an expression of human personhood. Specifically, it is an expression of human creativity, agency, and of our cooperation with nature and with God. Nature is a gift of God, and that is reason enough to celebrate and to offer God our thanks. (Consider: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth…”)
But that man is called to collaborate with God in the continued creation of the world—through his imagination, labor, sweat, and effort—this is a gift upon gift. (Consider: “…through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands…”)
It would be a grave mistake, especially for Catholics, to reduce labor — and therefore our celebration of labor on Labor Day — to history, economics, or politics. To do so would risk us missing something deeper, something which should inspire our awe and ongoing gratitude: God invites us to work with him. This should humble us.
So let’s see Labor Day asa more than an end-of-summer celebration, and as even more than a celebration of the workers. Let it be an occasion to thank our creative God for the grace he extends to us, the grace and gift of working at his side.