My brothers and I knew that picnics, swimming parties and ball games were supposed to be the order of the day for Labor Day. But our father had decidedly different opinions. It was true that he didn't have to don his suit and drive to work that first Monday in September. But Labor Day still meant laboring. One year we painted the barn. Other times it was mending the fence, sealing the driveway, building a tree house in the backyard. Dad wasn't going to pass up the opportunities presented by three strong boys, a bright summer day and a big sale at the hardware store.
If someone had told my brothers and me about the background of Labor Day, we might have had a bit more leverage to argue for swimming instead of fence mending. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, the bill that authorized it rushed through Congress and signed into law in a mere six days (my, how they seem to be able to get things done when they put their minds to it!). President Grover Cleveland was anxious to make peace with the labor movement after federal marshals killed several workers breaking a strike in Illinois.
The day was intended as a "workingman's holiday," a recognition of the significant role ordinary laborers played in building a strong and vibrant national economy. It was a time for parades and public speeches by labor leaders. They used the day to call for reforms that would make working conditions more just and safe for all. In an age when vacations were unusual for blue-collar workers, this time for relaxation and festivity was a rare gift. It was a day when a working man got to be his own boss, a figure of dignity and importance. I'm sure plenty of them used the day back then, as my father did, for household projects. At least they could direct their own labor as they saw fit.
Those who designed Labor Day understood that to appreciate work properly, to put it in its rightful place, we also need time for rest and celebration. To think about how to do work better and more fairly and to work for those changes required leisure. Only a day of rest showed the workingman as a figure worthy of respect, not just an anonymous cog in the industrial machine. Work is good for us, and it plays a role in shaping who we are. But work is not everything. We are made for more than work.
That insight is rooted deep in Christian teaching about work and rest. The creation story shows that God has made work a basic part of our life. In the Garden of Eden, the first man was given work to do --"to till and to keep" the garden (Genesis 2:15). He would use his own effort and talent to engage in work that brought order and fruitfulness to the Earth. Psalm 104's great survey of the activity of the natural world sums up humanity's role in this way, "Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening" (Psalm 104:23).
Work is integral to life. Work done well, work that engages our creative faculties and brings a sense of accomplishment, brings moments when we can feel very close to God. The lack of work can be debilitating for us, as numerous studies on the damage of long-term unemployment have shown. Work is also part of our spiritual life. God calls us to present everything we do in service to him, to recognize that our talents and the opportunities we have to use them are gifts. Every task undertaken with gratitude and conscientiousness can be a way of honoring him.
God, who gave us work to make life good, also gave us rest to make it better. The day of rest, the Sabbath, is also part of God's plan for human life, as the same Creation story tells. One day in every week, work is to be set aside, for the glory of the one who gave us the work to do, and as a way of putting work in its proper place. Our bodies and our minds need time for rest to function properly. More importantly, the Sabbath expresses our faith that God will provide what we really need, that we can take the risk of being unproductive. The day of rest strikes back at the fear and the sense of scarcity that can drive us to so much frantic, grasping activity.
For though work is important to human life, God is still more important. We are not made ultimately to be useful or productive, but to be joyful and holy. The life of heaven is described consistently as a time of rest and worship, the "Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God." Our days of rest here point ahead to that glorious promise that gives the rest of life its proper perspective.
Work is good, but rest is better. I never knew a Labor Day without work as a child, but dad always made sure a little joy came at the end. We'd cool off by jumping in a pond. Maybe there would be an ice cream cone. It seemed to taste a little sweeter when the brushes and hammers had just been set aside. Maybe dad understood Labor Day after all.
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Cooperstown.