1 May 2008 St. Joseph the Worker
Acts 18, 1-8; John 16, 16-20
The celebration of Labor Day is for many Catholics also the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. It seems that Catholics are making a statement apart from the ‘socialist’ movement that gave rise to the civil observance of the day of the ordinary worker. St. Joseph is celebrated twice in the year, one in March and the other today. What then is the Catholic view of work that St. Joseph signifies?
Work has two faces. There is a type of work that is dignifying, redemptive and humanizing. Pope John XXIII said that work is endowed with dignity and is ‘an expression of the human person’ wherein we perfect ourselves (Mater et Magistra). Vatican II reintroduces the biblical notion that God works. By extension, Christians participate in the ‘unfolding of the Creator’s own work’ when we labor (Gaudium et Spes and Laborem Exercens). Teilhard de Chardin thus reiterates that ‘offering the day to the Lord’ is not enough, we are also invited to engage in the world, meaning we have to cooperate too with God’s creating and sustaining life. As part of the material universe, we must help bring it towards the perfection of creation. In other words, when we work we do not do it alone (as if God is absent) like working while the boss is on vacation; rather, when we labor, the boss also works with us, side by side. At a deeper level, this type of work contributes to our self-realization, meaning, what we do forms who we are, including our basic beliefs and attitudes. Who we are today is a product of our long hours of studies, focused times for practice, and hours of evaluation like exams and stage performances. Work helps our talents mature. Work makes us discover our potential.
On the other hand, there is a type of work that is dull, painful and dehumanizing. For many of us, work is about sustenance, an exhausting activity done out of necessity. We are doing it because we need to put something on the family’s table. We do not deny that there is indeed value in this type of work, because it fulfills basic needs. Much of our activities are done because we have to do it to survive. In addition, many have work in order to have more power. Thus, work can either be engaging or estranging to us that we forget God.
The Gospel, however, proposes a bridge between these faces. Work is not the meaning of life. We have to view work both as a participation in earthly progress but also in the Kingdom of God. We have to see work with its two faces. If we focus on the positive view of work as a participation of creation, we may overlook the exhaustive labor of many ordinary workers. If we focus on the painful view of work, we may look down on the reality of work having its human and worldly fulfillments. When we have a devotion to St. Joseph the Worker, we affirm that these two faces can be existent in one person. As a saint, on one hand, St. Joseph reminds us that work has a divine purpose. As a carpenter, on the other hand, we remember that work brings with it some earthly fulfillment — it is by Joseph’s hand that Jesus was brought up well.