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 | By Cristina Umaña Sullivan

The Dignity of Work: Celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker

St. Joseph was a hard-working man in the likeness of the eternal Father, who designed man and all creation. Both father figures taught Jesus how to work: “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work” (Jn 5:17). Let’s discuss a crucial question to celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker (May 1): is work a blessing that God bestows or is it a punishment for having disobeyed him? Both perspectives are found in Genesis.

Work as a Blessing

God created us in his image and likeness and has shared with us his creative qualities — his faculties to invent, design and manage. Our God is a hard-working father. He does not sit waiting and watching the consequences of our actions from afar. He is interested in us and in the work of his hands as any father is for his children, precisely because that is what we are, his children. Moreover, from the beginning he has given us a mission as mankind: “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gn 2:15). This mission is a fundamental part of our dignity: the ability to work, to create, to bring order to chaos and to understand the mechanics of each of the realities that surround us and determine who we are. These qualities most resemble our Creator.

God wants us to be stewards of creation and to cooperate with his creative genius because he wants us to be fulfilled and satisfied. To become the best version of ourselves and mature into fullness, it is necessary that we apply our given capabilities by collaborating in God’s creative work. As Bishop Robert Barron said, “Work is beautiful because it awakens our creativity, engages our energies and produces something new and beautiful in the world. Let’s remember: God doesn’t compete with us, he has nothing to gain or lose, he just wants to share and give us what he has, he wants us to participate in his creativity. In this way, work is lived in the best way.”

Work as Punishment

However, right after the fall, God warned Adam and Eve (and by extension all of us) about the consequences they must face for their bad choices: “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. … By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” (Gn 3:17 and 19). The consequences of departing from his divine plan by attacking our given nature impact us directly and impact our surroundings: our space, our relationships and our tasks.

When we stray from God's plan — or when our plans are not in tune with our vocation and our true nature as children of God — then our work becomes heavy and even an unbearable burden. That’s when our nature groans for liberation and our soul rebels within us. Our decisions and actions have consequences: if we do good, we reap good; when we go against God’s will, the fruits we will reap will not be good.

God created the world, but he created it unfinished because he counts on us to accomplish this creative work. St. Thomas Aquinas explained it by saying that God made creation, and he made it in an excellent, but not finished, way. The idea that we broke God’s perfection after the fall is false. The truth is that creation, which is well made, is destined to evolve, and we are called to be an active part of it. We are called to participate so that this transformation continues to make creation a good and well-done work.

Our work in nature and in creation must be respectful, conscientious and careful of the time and resources that nature itself requires. Our work must be collaborative with God’s creativity and respectful of the means available. Who hasn’t experienced a deep contentment when a good day’s work comes to an end, or who hasn’t felt the satisfaction of producing something that didn’t exist before? Through those experiences, God is sharing with us the same satisfaction he felt during the creation of the world, as we see in the first chapter of Genesis.

For us as Christians, work goes beyond a mere function or something to provide dimension. It is also the way to participate in God’s creative act and in creation itself. In this way we serve the purpose of our eternal calling. We can take advantage of the feast of St. Joseph the Worker to highlight the dignity of work: let us pray that all work may be dignified, that it may provide material sustenance and especially the spiritual and human enrichment of families and society.