“This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent”.
Today, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In much of the world, May Day is observed as Labor Day – but, in many places, it had been co-opted by the more radical labor unions that were in their inspiration or direction influenced by the Communist Party. May Day – during the Cold War – was the day that communist governments rolled out their best in military equipment in order to project the inevitability of the victory of their “revolution”: all supposedly in the name of the worker.
The “worker paradises” promised by the Reds were far from being that. When man tries consciously to organize society without reference to God, he organizes it against himself. Those who promise “heaven on earth” end up giving us “hell”.
Pope Pius XII instituted this feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955, apparently in response to the “May Day” celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists. But even though, the threat once posed by the Soviet Union and its communist ideology is in the past, this remembrance of Joseph as a worker is still relevant. For, if the attempt of ideological materialism of the once Communist block nations– to organize society without reference to God – has failed, we cannot say the same for the practical materialism of the Secular western nations, and their ongoing efforts to organize society without reference to God. The words of Jesus in today’s gospel are more than just a pious thought. “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for Eternal Life.”
This feast of St. Joseph the Worker honors those who earn their daily bread by the labor of their hands. And today we can certainly associate St. Joseph who fled to Egypt with the Mary and her child and worked as a foreigner laborer in a strange land with the immigrant workers of our time – both legal and illegal. St. Joseph and the cause of the dignity of the working man have a long history. That Jesus was known to be the carpenter’s son affirms that the most obscure and humdrum of human activities are entirely compatible with the perfection of the Son of God. The mystery of the Incarnation brings us, in the words of the Little Brother of Jesus, Rene Voillaume, “conviction that the evangelical holiness proper to a child of God is possible in the ordinary circumstances of someone who is poor and obliged to work for his living.” ( Brothers of Men)
But this feast day should remind all of us of the connection between our work and holiness – between what most people do for a living: i.e., our employment; and, fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives: i.e. our call to holiness. In the face of the various scandals of recent years in the church, in the corporate world and in politics, we must continue to resist what the bishops at the Second Vatican Council called: “one of the gravest errors of our time… the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and their day-to-day conduct”.
As Catholics it is necessary for us to keep Jesus from being removed from ordinary human life. Our faith in Jesus cannot be reduced to just to a “private matter”.
In our daily lives, we live our faith as worker, spouse, parent, coach, priest, housekeeper, business owner, labor leader, student, professor, stockbroker, and in so many other ways. What we must seek to understand that what we do in our everyday life has moral purpose – that what we do contributes to or detracts from God’s creation and the common good.
Work in God’s plan is not a punishment for sin but the means for men and women to participate in God’s own work of creation. Through work, we necessarily seek to meet our material needs and provide for our families; but through work, we also seek to contribute to our communities. Thus, our work as a participation in God’s continuing creation promotes the common good and reflects our human dignity.
In this way, the work we will do will be honest and worthy of our dignity as creatures created in God’s own image and likeness. Work should strengthen our family life, providing resources and respect, benefits and health care for families. Work should enhance our families, our communities, and our spiritual lives. Work, worthy of man, should allow us and our families to live in dignity. And work should be legal. At the present time, because of our inadequate and antiquated immigration laws, we have emerging in our nation a new underclass of people. It is a cynical system that in order to secure needed workers first forces them to run an increasing dangerous gauntlet of illegal border crossings and then refuses them any avenues to regularize their status.
Whatever our work or status, each one of us is called by faith to shape the world in which we live and labor. Each one of us must “take up the cross” and live out what our faith teaches about human life and dignity, about economic and social justice, about reconciliation and peace. We are called to apply our values and our moral principles in our lives and in our work.
Even those higher up on the economic ladder, must remember that the purpose of work is about more than “getting more”. In seeking to meet their own economic aspirations, even the relatively affluent can consume so much time and energy at work, away from their family and away from their home, that raising children and contributing to their communities are neglected.
At the shrine there is a beautiful sculpture of St. Joseph with Jesus in his workshop at Nazareth. That work of art depicts so well the intimacy that the foster father of Jesus had with our Lord. On this May Day, as we reflect seriously on how we bring holiness and wholeness to the work we do, we would do well to heed the words of Pius XII when he established this feast day: “..if you want to be close to Christ, we again repeat, ‘Go to Joseph’”. (cf. Genesis 41:44)