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Labor Day Homily at St. Mary of Sorrows Church

The following homily was given for the Labor Day celebration on Monday, Sept. 4, at St. Mary of Sorrows Historical Church in Fairfax Station. Every year, we observe Labor Day. This year we do so within the Year of the Great Jubilee. In fact, in the United States, today has been designated as Jubilee Day of Workers. So, we pause in prayer to reflect upon the value of human labor and recall its essential role in the vocation and destiny of human beings. In our first reading we listen to the account of the creation of man. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." This is the central truth we must keep in mind about man, about ourselves; we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Men and women are the only members of creation who share God’s image and likeness — are the only ones who can truly be said to be capable of work in its proper sense. We see in this creation account God ‘working’, this is one of the ways in which man is in the image of God. As our Holy Father stated in his encyclical on human work, "The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity…" (Laborem Exercens, 25). Man is also given a command by God, a task he must fulfill: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." By being given dominion over creation, and the command to subdue it, we are commanded to work. In that same encyclical on human work our Holy Father teaches us: "This description of creation (the one we have just heard in the first reading)…is also in a sense the first ‘gospel of work’. For it shows what the dignity of work consists of: it teaches that man ought to imitate God, his Creator, in working, because man alone has the unique characteristic of likeness to God" (Laborem Exercens, 25). Holiness is being like God. We are made in the image and likeness of a God who works, and in working we show forth this likeness and become more like Him. "Just as human activity proceeds from man, so it is ordered towards man. For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well" (Gaudium et Spes, 35). Work is a means to become holy, it is a sanctifying activity. We see in the life of Jesus, God made flesh, an example of the value God ascribes to human work. Jesus did not despise work in his earthly life. He was the son of a carpenter and surely as a young man worked in his foster-father’s shop. Because he took on flesh and became one of us, Jesus has an appreciation for human work, and so one can say that "He looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of man’s likeness with God, the Creator and Father" (Laborem Exercens, 26). Our work is a vehicle through which we are sanctified. How many of us approach work with the attitude that, on the one hand, we are acting in the image and likeness of God by working, and on the other, fulfilling the command he gave to man at his creation to exercise dominion and subdue the earth? We are called to perceive work in this manner; we are called to be transformed and made holy by working. It is only man who can truly work. Animals are said to work, but they only fulfill a task which they are forced to perform. An ox, by nature, would not try to figure out a way to put a yoke on so that it could plow a field. Man by nature, on the other hand, will think about ways in which he can obtain the things he needs for survival and happiness. He will work, he will create. After the fall of Adam and Eve, a curse was put on work because of man’s transgression. From then on man would not just work, but he would ‘toil’. Work, after the fall, has an element of hardship attached to it. Everyone here, I am sure, could easily recount the hard aspects of their work. How is the Christian to respond to this? We know from the gospel that through His cross Jesus Christ brought about our redemption. We must learn to see our work as a way of sanctification in our lives. By carrying the cross of the hardships in our job we can unite ourselves to Jesus on the cross. St. Paul gives us an insight when he tells us in his Letter to the Colossians: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…" In fact, if we look at anyone in scripture, old or new, they show us that they too had jobs that had their fill of problems. The key to being a successful person is to see work as a participation in the likeness of God, to give work its true meaning. It is when we can see our work as an encounter with God, a way of faithfully living out our vocation as men and women, being an instrument of sanctity that we begin to be transformed into the image and likeness of God. Work should sanctify us, not destroy us. In a few moments we will bless the tools that many of you have brought to be blessed. We see in the blessing of these tools a metaphor of our own sanctification. These tools help you to accomplish your work. Blessing these tools in a sense consecrates them for the sacred task of helping men and women to live out their high vocation of being images of God. These tools also help men and women to be obedient to and fulfill the command given them by God to fill the earth and subdue it. Work is a good thing, but our Gospel today reminds us to keep it in perspective. "No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?" Jesus is telling us, yes, work is valuable and good, but it receives its goodness and value because of its connection with God. In other words, work is a special task to which we have been called by our Creator, a way in which we share in His image and likeness and carry out His command. Work is meant to sanctify us. Let me close with one more exhortation from our Holy Father: "Let the Christian who listens to the word of the living God, uniting work with prayer, know the place that his work has not only in earthly progress but also in the development of the Kingdom of God, to which we are all called through the power of the Holy Spirit" (Laborem Exercens, 28). Amen.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2000