While most Americans think of the first Monday in September as the last day of summer vacation, Labor Day (as the name suggests) is more about work than recreation. Although officially established as a national holiday in 1894, the first Labor Day celebration actually occurred in New York City in 1882, when the Central Labor Union organized a parade, rally and picnic for its members and their families.
For many people today, the idea of celebrating work is a bit strange. Why should we commemorate our daily toil and labors? After all, isn’t work a punishment? In the Bible, after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit in the garden, God tells them, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).
While it’s true that some labor may feel like a punishment, especially those tasks which we would rather not do, work is not always synonymous with drudgery.
God worked for six days creating the heavens and the earth, and the result was very good. God’s first command, even before the Fall, was to work and care for the earth (Genesis 1:28). Consider the fact that Jesus worked as a carpenter for most of his life, that the first disciples were fishermen, and that Saint Paul worked as a tent-maker. Manual labor is not something of which we should be ashamed. Work, as Pope Francis noted in his General Audience on August 19, “expresses the dignity of being created in the image of God.”
The first Christians knew this. In addition to being persecuted for their beliefs, they were mocked and ridiculed for being carpenters, fishermen, farmers and the like. And yet they did not turn from their responsibilities. Instead they did everything for the glory of God, and in doing so, brought many more people to the faith.
This is why Dominicans spend so much time studying and at prayer. The many hours a friar spends in the library and the chapel are a crucial part of his preparing to preach the Gospel. Our work has spiritual implications, for it can bring about the conversion of those around us. The same is true for those who preach by the witness of their lives. When we offer our labors in service to God, providing food and shelter for our families, or bringing aid and comfort to those in need, we are sharing in the work of countless saints throughout history. This example of service and dedication is a sharing in Christ’s work, and thus can inspire others to seek for God.
Our job as preachers and evangelists is not finished, but a moment of leisure is that much sweeter when it is experienced with a sense of satisfaction at having labored at something worthwhile. So why not celebrate the work that we do with a day of rest and renewal?