Labor Day and the Flat Earth
Work is one of the ways we image God
The Earth is flat. Not actually flat, but flat in the sense that man no longer sees a horizon. Do you want proof of that? Look no further than Labor Day. Invented to “celebrate” American workers and their achievements, it is now little more than a bookend marking the end of Summer — one last day off before the business of Fall begins. Labor Day is, of course, one of the many secular “holydays” in which we ignore the transcendent and celebrate ourselves. This flattening out of life leaves us little reason to celebrate, but not without hope of redemption. And in this regard, Labor Day also offers us a model.
The redemption begins by admitting that since the French Revolution, there has been a deliberate move to replace overtly religious (and Catholic) holy days with secular holidays. We have become so accustomed to it that we do not even realize what has happened. Even Christmas has fallen prey, through the imposition of Santa Claus. The point is that our secular holidays have Catholic roots and therefore can only be truly celebrated when God’s part is acknowledged.
Labor Day was founded as a “workingman’s holiday” to celebrate man’s achievements in labor. It was meant to mark freedom from the oppressive work brought about by the Industrial Revolution. This rings hollow, however, when separated from the achievements of Christ the Worker.
The Son of God became man and became the Redeemer of Work by becoming a worker Himself. Through Him, man’s work became a source of personal sanctification. Work, when united to Christ, becomes an intrinsic good by bringing about in the worker the virtues necessary to live a happy life.
Work — like the other labor, procreation — is one of the ways we image God. We are not just beavers instinctively building dams, or mere workers like bees in a hive. When God created the earth, it was not yet done. He left it to man to perfect the earth by participating in His creative act. God still creates today through man’s free participation and instrumentality. We are co-creators with God, and this fact is always in danger of being eclipsed when our horizons are shortened. As St. John Paul II put it, “man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator” and “within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation” (Laborem Exercens, 25).
Labor Day, paradoxically, is a day free from work. But it can only be a true holiday, a true festival, when the day is marked by the awareness that we are redeemed co-creators with God and that work, rather than something merely to be tolerated, actually makes us better human beings. That is a cause for celebration. Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper said that holidays can only be true days of joy when they mark something that affects the here and now. They are in a certain sense both sacramental and liturgical by nature, marking some past event whose good effects are still operative today. By celebrating them, they become even more operative. Labor Day is not primarily about the achievement of American workers but the great unmerited gift of work that made those achievements possible. Celebration only happens with expanded horizons and when we come to realize that we did not make work this way (in fact we made it the very opposite) but still it was given to us as a gift. True celebrations occur when we become keenly aware of some surprise gift we neither deserve nor saw coming.
Nietzsche once said, “the trick is not to arrange a festival but to find people who can enjoy it.” It is Christians, when they set their sights on the horizon, that can truly enjoy a Labor Day. And in so doing, they can slowly turn the culture back toward its proper roots.