Sunday, September 03, 2017

Labor Day and Laborem Exercens

St. John Paul II (1920-2005)

(Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on September 3, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Romans 12:1-2 and Matthew 16:21-27)

This long-weekend we celebrate Labor Day, the “unofficial” end of summer.  It might seem a bit odd, though, that we honor and give tribute to human labor and work by taking the day off!  Nonetheless, this observation of labor is one that is also deeply Catholic.

In 1981, St. John Paul II wrote his encyclical letter, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens).  It almost became the encyclical that was not, as he was shot and almost killed two days before the encyclical was to be released.  In the conclusion, he writes about how he made the final edits after recovering in the hospital.  The document was finally released on September 14, 1981, on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  In the encyclical, he explains how man and woman participate in God’s work of creation.  Made in the Imago Dei—the image of God—we share in and even develop and advance God’s activity as we continue to work in the world (Laborem Exercens, # 25).  True to the holiday we celebrate this weekend, though, St. John Paul II goes on to explain that we also imitate God when we rest!
God worked for six days when He created the world, and on the seventh day He rested.  It is not the case that God, after finishing the work of creation, was tired; it is not that God became exhausted and felt the need for a holiday.  No, of course not.  He was revealing to us what He intended for humanity.  We are the ones in need of rest.  We experience that great desire to reflect on all that has happened throughout the week and on all that God is doing.  We are the ones that need to unplug and recuperate with family and friends.  Above all, we observe this rest in which we worship God and insure that our lives and our work are totally and completely oriented to Him. Labor Day is a great opportunity for us to enter more deeply into God’s rest, and to make sure the we are prepared to keep Sunday sacred each and every week.

In the final section of the encyclical, St. John Paul II explains something that we all understand very well: that all work is toil.  In the Book of Genesis, immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, God pronounces His sentence against them:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.
—Genesis 3:17-19

Because of Original Sin, all work is toil; it requires effort and is experienced as resistance.  We all feel the weight of this reality.  More than toil and difficulty, St. John Paul II explains how the specter of death is introduced, as well.  We struggle and toil until death.  Yet it is not the will of God to leave us there. 

The great message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ came into this world and took on our human nature, and even human work and toil, to redeem us.  Jesus Himself was a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth” (Laborem Exercens, #26).  He ultimately gave Himself over completely to the work of redemption, willing to sweat and toil to His death on the cross.  He was buried in the ground and then rose again from the dead.  He poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church and now gives us the grace and privilege of participating in His work of redeeming the world.  Whenever we give ourselves generously to toil and strive in faith, we participate in God’s work of redeeming the world: “Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do” (Laborem Exercens, #27). 

Certainly, this toil involves the efforts of those who work for a living, professionals, those who possess a specific vocation in the world.  However, it also includes men and women who work hard in the home to build a family; it involves students—in grammar school, those in high school, or those in college striving to earn a degree—all who give themselves generously to the toil and effort that can bring about great fruit.

In the Gospel this weekend, St. Peter clearly shows an aversion to the work of the redemption as Jesus describes it; his reaction to the work of God on Calvary is one of surprise and even disagreement.  He rebukes Christ: “God forbid, Lord!”  Peter cannot grasp the meaning of toil and suffering that will accomplish the salvation of the world.  He even tries to convince Jesus that this cannot be the way.  For his response, Peter receives the strongest of rebukes: “Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23).  There is no other way to redemption than the way that God has revealed in the person of Jesus Christ crucified.

Fortunately, Peter will learn that way intimately and grasp entirely the meaning of the cross and the work of redemption.  He will willingly be crucified himself, albeit upside down on the Vatican hill, acknowledging himself unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as Christ died. 

In conclusion, St. Paul teaches us all this weekend how to follow the way of the cross.  He shows us, in the Second Reading in the Letter to the Romans, how our toil and work can participate in Jesus’ work of redeeming the world.  Very much like Jesus, who chides St. Peter for seeing only the human perspective, St. Paul exhorts us:

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
—Romans 12:2

We cannot look at work and toil as an earthly struggle only, one that is separate from our spiritual lives.  The burdens of work and the resistance that we experience are often opportunities for us to participate more fully in Jesus and the work He accomplished on the cross.  St. Paul appeals to us all this weekend, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). 

As we offer tribute to labor this weekend, and as we prepare to enter into a whole new season with God, may we give ourselves generously and joyfully to the work that God has entrusted to us.  In sharing Christ’s cross here in this world, may we also enter more deeply into that eternal rest that God has prepared for us from all eternity (Hebrews 4:1-13).