Work of Human Hands: A Labor Day Reflection

Tilling and Toiling

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When I was in 1st grade I didn’t like school, and I hated Adam and Eve. I had heard that it was because of them that I had to go to school.  As my dislike of school waned and my theological knowledge advanced, I learned that what I had heard was true only up to a point.

As a result of original sin, Adam must earn his bread through the sweat of his brow. But that doesn’t mean the earth blossomed by magic before the Fall. Even then, there was work to be done. The difference was in the sweat.  Before the Fall he tilled, after the Fall he toiled.

We all have those days. There are days when I wake up rested, and surprise my wife by emptying the dishwasher before breakfast. I head to work and class preparation is a breeze.  I can correct a stack of papers in an hour. And then there are other days. I lock myself in a room with the monster of my toil, like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, and scream at the top of my lungs to be let out.

Demetri Martin, a comedian whose bizarre humor amuses me more often than not, says that swimming is a strange sport. “Because sometimes you do it for fun, and sometimes you do it to not die…”  Work is somewhat similar. Sometimes it is a joy, sometimes it is nothing but penance.

Blessed John Paul II, in his landmark encyclical Laborem Exercens, speaks of these two dimensions of work:

“While it is true that man eats the bread produced by the work of his hands- and this means not only the daily bread by which his body keeps alive but also the bread of science and progress, civilization and culture – it is also a perennial truth that he eats this bread by ‘the sweat of his face’, that is to say, not only by personal effort and toil but also in the midst of many tensions, conflicts and crises, which, in relationship with the reality of work, disturb the life of individual societies and also of all humanity.”

I read an interview with Bruce Springsteen years ago in which he reflected on his own father’s struggles to find work and keep work, the toil of it all; and his mother’s more joyful work experience which gave her life order and a prideful purpose and a group of good friends. So many of his songs sing either of that struggle and the conflicts that emerge therefrom (e.g. Badlands, My Hometown) or the well-earned pride and freedom which is the fruit of honest labor (e.g. Out on the Street.)

When you feel like your work is getting you down, remember that you kneel before a Carpenter who died nailed to the Wood of the Cross. Human work always has been a way to participate in God’s creation and has been a call to transform the world. And work after the Fall will always have the element of toil. But through Christ’s own work of Redemption, that same toil can be united to Christ’s refashioning of the world, making of it an offering to the Father.

This world and our ability to “fill and subdue it” is a gift and a task from God. Our toil in doing so is something we can offer up to God through Christ, who takes the fruit of our labor and makes it an acceptable offering.

God gives a gift in creating the world and creating us. Then men and women, in the words of one of the possible founders of Labor Day (the question is thorny and disputed,) Peter J. McGuire, “from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.» And we place that before God in the offertory, that He may make it the Bread of Life, and our Spiritual Drink.

So this Labor Day weekend, let’s pay special attention to one of the oldest prayers in the Mass, one that comes from a Jewish prayer of blessing at meals that thousands of our older brothers in Faith say to this day:

“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the Bread of Life.”

Let’s be aware that our work is a gift, a chance to transform this world according to God’s design. Our sweat and toil come from our sin, but through Christ they can be in turn transformed into an offering more precious that we could have ever hoped to offer on our own.

And let’s pray for all who work on God’s green earth, and all who struggle to find and keep work.

Finally, let’s be aware as well that through and in our toil, we are called to eternal rest with God. That is the theological significance of long weekends!

“I believe in the love that you gave me.

I believe in the faith that could save me.

I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it

Will raise me above these Badlands…”

(Bruce Springsteen, Badlands)

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Reprinted with permission from the Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College.

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Edward Mulholland

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