by Father Mark Goldasich
“The parish office will be closed on Mon., Sept. 4, in observance of Labor Day.”
When I proofread this in my parish’s bulletin, I deleted it and promptly told my staff that the office would absolutely remain open because it’s called LABOR Day, after all. Why should they get a holiday from work?
Nah, just kidding. As a kid, however, I was pretty confused by the whole idea of a Labor Day holiday.
The origins of Labor Day are contested, at least as to its originator. Some attribute it to Peter J. McGuire, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Others contend that Matthew Maguire, the secretary of the Central Labor Union, should be given the credit. This was back in 1882 when working conditions in this country were horrific.
Many labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and still barely made a living. It was a time when children, as young as 5 and 6, were working in mills, factories and mines. Add to all of this the fact that workplaces were generally unsafe and unregulated. Labor unions formed at this time to combat these abuses and give a voice to workers.
The first Monday in September was chosen for the holiday since it fell halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. When it became a federal holiday in 1894, Congress said that it wanted to ensure that “the nobility of labor be maintained. . . . So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.”
While this is nice to know, it still didn’t explain the connection between labor and leisure. It took this story to do that:
Two men had to clear a field of trees. The contract called for them to be paid per tree.
Bill wanted the day to be profitable, so he grunted and sweated, swinging his ax relentlessly. Ed, on the other hand, seemed to be working about half as fast. He even sat down on a regular basis. Bill kept chopping away until every muscle and tendon in his body was screaming.
At the end of the day, Bill was terribly sore, but Ed was smiling and telling jokes. What’s more, Ed had cut down more trees.
Bill said, “I noticed you sitting while I worked without a break. How did you outwork me?”
“Did you notice I was sharpening my ax while I was sitting?” said Ed, smiling. (Found in “1001 Illustrations That Connect,” edited by Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof.)
Aha! Resting can be both restorative and productive. Taking a break gives the mind a chance to reflect and see things from a different perspective.
My primary feeling on Labor Day is gratitude — not only to have several “jobs” (pastor, editor and son), but that God has given me the health to do them. I’m also thankful that I’m doing work that I love and is meaningful.
Labor Day invites me to think of people who are unemployed and the worries they carry about being able to support their families. I remember the underemployed, people who may work two or three part-time jobs and still can’t make ends meet. I call to mind those who are physically or mentally prevented from working and what they wouldn’t give to have an occupation to pursue.
Labor Day also prods me to look around and notice people who labor on the holiday: police, firefighters, medical professionals, restaurant workers and paper carriers. It makes me incredibly grateful, as well, for people who do all of the jobs that I depend upon, but take for granted: farmers, street department workers, electricians, plumbers, garbage collectors, janitors, inventors and artists.
We can make all our labor holy if we bring God into it. And after all, isn’t our main “job” that of making Christ visible in the world?
With that in mind, let’s begin each workday with prayer. This one, found on belief.net, says it beautifully:
“My heavenly Father, as I enter this workplace, I bring your presence with me. . . . I thank you for the gifts you have blessed me with. I commit to using them responsibly in your honor. Give me a fresh supply of strength to do my job. Anoint my projects, ideas and energy so that even my smallest accomplishment may bring you glory. Lord, when I am confused, guide me. When I am burned out, infuse me with the light of the Holy Spirit. May the work that I do and the way I do it bring faith, joy and a smile to all that I come into contact with today.”