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Work is Participating in God's Continuing Creation!
By Fr. Sinclair Oubre
September 1, 2000
It was 1978, when I became a U.S. merchant marine. That summer, I traveled to Morgan City for my first job as a deckhand with Tidex (Tidewater). The company put me on a stand-by boat that was berthed at their docks. It was in for some minor repairs and maintenance, and supplied a living quarters and work for those of us who were waiting to be assigned to other vessels.
After I got my gear put away, and received my safety hat, I had supper and went to sleep wondering what the next day would bring.
On rising, we made our own breakfast, and then went down below to the lazarette. This is the last compartment in the vessel’s stern. Welders had been there the day before strengthening the supporting steel structure. Our job was to go below, clean up the area where they had been working, then prime, and spray paint the compartment.
Leaving aside that ventilation consisted of the removal of a couple of deck plate, and that respiratory equipment was a clean rag tied around my nose and mouth, this job turned out to be a meditative moment for me.
As I stumbled around the compartment, bent at the waist, carefully stepping over the beams that ran longitudinally along the hull, I found myself meditating that even this job was work that participated in God’s ongoing creation.
In the midst of the dirt heat and fumes, I found myself struggling to do the best job that I could, not because there was a supervisor over me, but because even this lowly, hidden place, how I did that work either built up God’s creation, or squandered it.
As a labor-priest, I find my time taken up with assisting workers in their struggles to organize into unions, or gain a fair contract. There are so many instances of greed, abuse and exploitation, that I never have an opportunity to call workers to reflect on what they are doing, and recognize their responsibility not only to their employer, but also their place in God’s Kingdom.
In 1965, Catholic bishops from around the word gathered in Rome for the last session of the Second Vatican Council. In one of their final document, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, they focused on how a follower of Jesus should live in the modern world. Specifically regarding human work, they wrote:
“By his labor a man ordinarily supports himself and his family, is joined to his fellow men and serves them, and can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection. Indeed, we hold that through labor offered to God man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, Who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with His own hands.” (#67 Gaudium et Spes)
This short passage is loaded with points of reflection, but for this
Labor Day, I would like to focus on two:
Bringing Creation to Perfection
Human beings were not only created by God, but they were also created in his image (Gen. 1:27). However, unlike the other creatures, God gave a special commission to men and women. He said to them:
“Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth....See I give you every see-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seen-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” (Gen 1:28-31)
God entrusted to human beings His creation, and it became the responsibility of men and women, by their activities and work to either build upon what God had given, or destroy it.
Our work today is a continuation of what began in the Book of Genesis. God has created, he has entrusted to us that creation, and by our work, we either build up his creation, or we subvert it by our greed ,laziness or exploitation.
While I was in the darkest corner of that boat, sweating in over 120 degree heat, the privilege and the responsibility of participating in God’s creative power focused me, and drove me to do my best in a place that no one would see. This was not because I feared the “Boss”, but because I desired that by my work, I could build up God’s ongoing creation.
As Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum):
“The Church renders this service to human society by preaching
the truth about the creation of the world, which God has placed in human
hands so that people may make it fruitful and more perfect through their
work....” (Centesimus Annus #51)
Labor offered to God is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ
As Christians we see Jesus Christ, as the incarnation of the Father, and the bringer of the Kingdom of God. St. Paul saw that his work as a preacher was filled with the grace of God, and because of that, his work was effective.
“For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] with me.” (1 Cor. 15:9-10)
The redemptive power of work can be clearly seen in St. Paul’s toiling for the Gospel. Christian history is filled with great saints who brought others to share in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac, and in our contemporary world, Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day.
However, the labor associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ is not limited only to those who preach the Good News, care for the sick and poor, or work for social justice in light of the Gospel. Every form of labor, if it is offered up to God, and done in a spirit of perfection, can be work that is associated with Jesus’ redemptive work.
The work of a doctor as she interacts, and heals her patient can be labor that is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. The work of a pipefitter as he struggles in close-quarters to apply that quality weld is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, or the work of the mariner, who carefully scans the horizon searching hour after hour for lights and possible distress signals, is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
On this Labor Day, I invite you not only to celebrate the blessings that come to us through our work, but also to recognize that in the work we both participate in the continuing creation of the Kingdom of God, and that through the sweat of our brow the work of our hands, and the reflections of our minds, we can join in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. A redemptive work that will not only bring about our salvation in His heavenly kingdom, but will also be the path by which our brothers and sisters will share in His redemptive grace.
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