A Blessed Labor Day!
In its best form, Labor Day is our civic opportunity to give intentional and public recognition to- the laborer. Its origins lie in the era when this meant the union member, the factory worker, the field hand, and anyone who on a day-to-day basis gave their blood and sweat to “make” something. It was a working class holiday, marked in big cities with parades for local union guilds, picnics, and speeches by public officials. And of course, as time passed, it became a day “off.”
That last part seems a bit contradictory. If the point is to celebrate labor as such, then wouldn’t it make sense to, well- “work” today? Our culture recognizes that labor is necessary, and we value the products that it produces, but we frequently do not value the laborer. So what better way to honor the common laborer than to elevate their status by granting them what only their “bosses,” or for centuries what only barons, kings, generals, and the elite could have: leisure. A day “off.” And so the holiday developed, and for one day at least, the common worker was a king.
From a purely secular perspective, labor itself is a burden. It is unpleasant, taxing, and frequently to be avoided. And when viewed only in this light, then persons and cultures will eventually flee either from it, or from taxing versions of it.
What they flee to is the modern version of “leisure,” which these days really means nothing more than “entertainment.” It is simply the absence of the unpleasantness of a clock, a boss, or an aching back. It is not directed to a greater end.
A Christian understanding of both labor and leisure is actually much different. Yes, it is true for us that “work” is work. But we see it as a participation in the work of the Redeemer, and we can bear the burden of it by finding a solidarity in our unpleasantness with the Lord who faithfully carried his cross; with the God who Himself became a laborer (a carpenter to be exact). That solidarity allows us to embrace even the sweat of labor as a path of friendship with the Lord, and accordingly as a blessing.
And therefore leisure in the Christian view is not so much a narcotic remedy to work, or an absence of something. It is a participation in the intentional act of contemplating God’s glory (and so it includes worship), and leisure means celebrating the bonds of communion that exist with Him and with each other as he joins us together in Himself.
That’s not quite the same thing as heading out to the Mall. And actually, that is the problem with Labor Day these days. It has created a new class of laborers who really do not ever get a day “off.” Because much of the “leisure” activities that drive today’s holiday are really centered on driving the retail industry. Labor Day Sales, major sporting events, and menu specials all rely on keeping a whole lot of people at their jobs. These people are the new “factory workers” of old that this holiday was once created to protect. And as long as we continue to adopt secular views of labor and of leisure (entertainment), this problem is going to continue to grow.
For everyone’s sake, perhaps we need to pray about what a real rest from modern “leisure” (entertainment) would look like? And as we do, maybe we can recapture the meaning of the original labor day: the Sabbath. Once upon a time, all the businesses were closed on Sundays, and there was, therefore, no sub-class of laborer who existed to prop-up an out of control entertainment culture.
We need a weekly rest from labor. And from “leisure.” Isn’t God wise to give us the Third Commandment?