In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus instructs the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath is a gift from God for man: a day for people to set aside their usual work, to focus on worshipping God, and to enter into the Lord’s rest.
Echoing Jesus’ language, Pope St. John Paul II points out that “however true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work’” (Laborem Exercens, 6). God, the giver of all good gifts, has given man work, like the Sabbath, as a gift.
Adam, the first man, was instructed by God to “cultivate and care for” the created world (Genesis 2:15). Through his work man, whom God created “in his image” (Genesis 1:27), makes and creates in imitation of God’s creation and government of the universe. Work gives us the opportunity to exercise our intelligence and creativity. Artists, architects, writers, engineers, and people in other professions find great fulfillment through their creative work. It is human to work and to create, to share in the activity of the Creator.
However, “there is yet another aspect of human work… All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked with toil. The Book of Genesis expresses it in a truly penetrating manner: the original blessing of work contained in the very mystery of creation and connected with man’s elevation as the image of God is contrasted with the curse that sin brought with it: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (LE, 27).We experience a paradox in that we both desire work, as poignantly experienced by those seeking employment and the appeal in various contexts to a “right to work,” yet we also complain about work and the exhaustion it can bring. We look forward to retirement and celebrate the end of each work or school week exclaiming, “Thank God it’s Friday!”
After the Fall, work can act as medicine, which can have a bitter taste: “God’s fundamental and original intention with regard to man, whom he created in his image and after his likeness, was not withdrawn or cancelled out even when man, having broken the original covenant with God, heard the words: ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’” (LE, 9). The curse due to original sin, by which work is toilsome for man, is a punishment but also, in a sense, a gift. Firstly, due to original sin people have a tendency toward selfishness, a sort of inward-looking gravitational pull that interferes with their ability to love God and others. We sadly see that people whose wants and needs are always easily granted without work on their part can become “spoiled,” that is, they are sucked further into the interior black hole of selfishness. To guard against this tendency, the effort of work forces man outside of himself. For a person whose selfishness, due to concupiscence, may result in a lifetime consumed in constant self-indulgence, the need to work is a gift which pulls him outward. Through work a person has the opportunity to grow in virtue, to encounter others, and to contribute to the common good. Secondly, just as we speak in the Easter Vigil liturgy of the “happy fault” of Adam, “which won for us so great a redeemer,” we can also view the suffering we endure in work as an opportunity to share in the cross of Jesus Christ: “By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform” (LE, 27).
As we continue our work in this new year may we thank God for the gift of work, pray for those who lack the opportunity to work, and look to Jesus Christ, who was himself a man of work, as our model and our way to find meaning even in the suffering that accompanies our efforts.