In the States, today is Labor Day. On Labor Day, we don’t work. Go figure.
A day celebrating the dignity of labor would have been unthinkable among the ancient pagans. The aim in life was leisure. Cicero and Aristotle both frowned upon the day-to-day grind of the trades.
From the beginning, however, Christians (like the Jews before them) celebrated the work of their hands. They saw it as human participation in the act of creation. The new attitude is there in St. Paul: “We labor, working with our own hands” (1 Cor 4:12). “Work with your hands, as we charged you” (1 Thes 4:11). “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living” (2 Thes 3:11-12).
The attitude is everywhere in the works of the Fathers. The Didache, written perhaps as early as 48 A.D., exhorts: “If a prophet desires to abide with you, and if he is a tradesman, let him work and eat … See to it that as a Christian he will not live with you idle.”
In the fourth century, The Apostolic Constitutions decreed: “Attend to your employment with all appropriate seriousness, so that you will always have sufficient funds to support both yourselves and those who are needy. In that way, you will not burden the Church of God.”
Christ came to give rest to those who labored and found life burdensome. It is edifying to see that the grave markers in the catacombs and ancient cemeteries bear the symbols of trades the Christian men and women had practiced in life. The pagans noticed the difference in Christian attitude. In the second century, Celsus, the great critic of Christianity, sneered that Christian congregations were made up of “wool–workers, cobblers, laundry–workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels.” Christians were, he added, disciples of “a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and [whose husband was] a carpenter by trade.”
Indeed, we are still today disciples of those ordinary laborers. And that’s one good reason why we can celebrate Labor Day, a thought that never occurred to Aristotle or Cicero or Celsus. Enjoy your day off.