Work through it

Ninety thousand hours or one-third of a person’s life is spent on work. Some would argue it is much more.

May 17, 2024

Ninety thousand hours or one-third of a person’s life is spent on work. Some would argue it is much more. In many countries, it is not unusual for people to hold two jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has further altered the nature of how and where “work” is done. Some work entirely from home now, while others, partially so. Work is, and will continue to be, an essential aspect of human life, and Christian reflection.

On May 1, we celebrated the feast of St Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of workers. The same date also commemorates all workers. Despite accepting the number of hours we work in our entire life, the word “work” tends to draw a sigh of anguish among many. It seems to be something that deprives one of personal pleasure and happiness. Some even say that work and toil came after the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:17-19), and thus is a punishment.

However, while it is true that “work” is mentioned in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, it was not deemed something negative, let alone a punishment. In Genesis 2:1-3, we read: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that He had done. So, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it, God rested from all the work that He had done in creation.” God rested from the work of creating life in all its richness and diversity. It was not a toil or labour done in vain or meaninglessness. It was a labour of love and fruitfulness. Yes, it was labour done thoughtfully, purposefully, and intentionally. It was systematic and interrelated. It was creative work characterised by mutual interdependency and nurturing.

St Paul states, “Whatever your work is, put your heart into it as if it were for the Lord and not for men, knowing that the Lord will repay you by making you His heirs. It is the Lord that you are serving” (Colossians 3:23- 24). He says this in a chapter dedicated to living in and with the resurrected Christ. The chapter actually begins by stating, “Since you have been raised up to be with Christ, you must look for the things that are above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” (Colossians 3:1). Every baptised Christian is hence called to see work from a heavenly perspective. Seeing work purely as evil works against our baptismal identity and calling.

Pope Francis states that “Jesus worked with His hands, in daily contact with the matter created by God, to which He gave form by His craftsmanship. It is striking that most of His life was dedicated to this task in a simple life which awakened no admiration at all: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mk 6:3). In this way He sanctified human labour and endowed it with a special significance for our development.” (Laudato Si’ #98).

So, as a necessary step to restoring the meaning of work from a Christian perspective, it is necessary to envision it as given to us in Scripture and Christian teachings. It is a participation in the creative act of God. It is, as per our vocation and talents, a response to God’s invitation and command. It is a way to praise God while nurturing ourselves. Flowing from that, the sweat and toil, stress and challenge, and joys and sorrows of work must be contextualised within the Christian understanding and vision of work. This is not in any way meant to underplay the “pain” and “frustration” found at the workplace. This is not to discount the possible discriminatory workplace environments, just wage and compensation disputes, etc. The pain is real. But so too is the participation in the divinity. Put simply, through work, we are called to participate in God’s creative action and thus contribute to the common good. The sweat of our brow is not in vain. Work can and should connect us with God. It gives us an opportunity to see God in all things, and be co-creators with Him. As the risen Lord permeates through walls, space and time, may our work and workplaces be places of encountering the divine.

(Fr Richard Anthonysamy SJ is involved in parish ministry, spiritual direction, and faith formation work.)

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