In the Catholic Church, May 1st is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This day was established by Pope Pius XII in 1955. The Pope announced this in an audience with Italian workers on May 1st of that year. He described St. Joseph as “the humble craftsman of Nazareth.” Pope Pius wanted to provide workers with a patron saint and also to counter the “May Day” celebrations that the Communists sponsored.
According to the Gospels of Mark and Mathew, Joseph was a tekton, which in Greek means a craftsman or woodworker. Traditionally, tekton is translated “carpenter.” Jesus would learn from Joseph, his foster father, the trade and skills of being a tekton. I imagine St. Joseph instilled in Jesus the concept of the dignity of work. He would also learn from St. Joseph a work ethic committed to serving others–a work ethic consisting of integrity, honesty, discipline, dependability, responsibility, fairness in pricing, and compassion.
Work and the dignity of work begin with God, the Creator. In Genesis 1:31; 2:1-4 God creates for several days. After completing the work, there is a smile of satisfaction on the creator’s face. “God looked at everything … and found it very good” (1:31). In the second creation account, God, working with his hands, sculpts the creature out of the clay of the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and so man became a living being. (2:7)
Not only does God work, but man and woman are commissioned to nurture, protect, and care for all of creation. We are summoned to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, birds of the air…fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1: 26, 28). “To subdue” and “have dominion” doesn’t give us permission to roughshod over any part of creation. Subduing the earth includes harnessing and protecting its various resources. Dominion is not a license to abuse but is a contract from God to care for all of creation.
In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), Pope St. John Paul II writes, “The expression “subdue the earth” has an immense range. It means all the resources that the earth (and indirectly the visible world) contains and which, through the conscious activity of man, can be discovered and used for his ends.” ( Laborem Exercens ,4)
Genesis 2:15 also tells us we are to “cultivate and care for creation.” Hebrew for “cultivate” is ebed meaning “to serve.” Caring for creation includes the role of preserving it. In both Genesis 1 and 2, God entrusts creation to our care and commands us to be stewards of all created.
St. Benedict, in his Rule, summons his followers to stewardship. He prescribes that we are to treat the tools of the monastery as vessels of the altar (RB 31.10). This applies not only to material goods but also to persons. We are to treat others as sacred vessels. In other words, we are to be stewards of all of God’s creation.
What do we mean by the noun “work?” One of the many definitions of work is “activity involving mental or physical effort done to achieve a purpose or result” (Dictionary.com)
Work in this sense includes, but goes beyond, employment. Work may be in the business world, in community, and in the home. Work can include intellectual pursuits, washing dishes, cleaning house, mowing the lawn, volunteering, or calling someone who is homebound.
“Jesus looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of [human being’s] likeness with God the Creator…”
(Laborem Exercens, 26)
God the Creator of the universe shares creative power with each of us. We have the opportunity to partner with God in the work of transforming our world.
I share with you a Benedictine saying that is painted on the main Gothic arch in our chapel at Sacred Heart Monastery: Ut in Omnibus Glorificetur Deus, which means “That in all things, God may be glorified.” Let us give glory to God by using the gifts and talents God has given us by being responsible stewards of all that God has created.
By Sister Marie Leonard, OSB