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Monday, September 2, 2013

Do. Be. Do. Be. Do. The Labor Day song.

Here I go again, playing the opening hymn for mass on Labor Day (Morning Has Broken) and pondering the irony of being one of two people on the parish payroll who were in fact “called in to work” on a national (and diocesan) holiday.

Off topic: I wonder what Eleanor Farjeon was thinking with verse 3 of “Morning Has Broken.” Many hymnals seem to have, as the last line of the stanza, 
“Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day.” 
To me, “recreation of the new day” seems tautological; one can recreate the first day, or create a new day, but I’m not so sure about recreating the new day; it doesn’t reveal anything new. I wonder whether she meant “Gods recreation on the new day,” as though God’s rest, God’s play (recreation) were perceived in creation as she is experiencing it? IOW, is it re-creation or recreation? I guess it’s quite possible she meant the former, that this day, with its blackbirds, singing, new fall of rain and dewfall on grass, is a re-creation of the “new day” of creation. Thinking about this, it’s no wonder that I can’t remember how to play the song and lose my place in the middle of the second stanza.

Back on topic, such as it is: Labor Day. Was there ever a holiday so out of favor since the great Catholic working class of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries became the dominant class in USA, and the labor unions which had been reluctantly but solidly championed by Leo XIII fell into disfavor because of their greed, corruption, and often violently monopolistic tactics? And I say that with love, because I’m a guy who would like to see the labor unions reemerge in this country as a force that Wall Street has to reckon with. Labor Day is a working day for the retail workers of the USA, and almost no one pauses to reflect on the dignity of labor, the meaning of work in the life of the country (and, to us, the church), or to celebrate the corrective solidarity of labor unions, which was the origin of this great holiday in the first place. We like having a Monday off, of course. We don't really talk much about why labor unions were (are) needed, how much blood was spilt in the rise of the labor movement, most of it the blood of working people, and how the fattening of the 1% happened simultaneously with the mostly self-inflicted debilitation of the solidarity of the labor movement.

We hear part of the creation story in Genesis, the creation of people “in God’s own image, male and female,” with the subsequent command to have a lot of babies and fill the earth and “subdue” it, followed by God’s sitting back on day seven in the cosmic La-Z-Boy and seeing that “it was very good,” and sitting back with a Godweiser and taking a nap. But hearing that story on Labor Day leads me to recall that I learned long ago that it was not the creation story that is the foundational myth of Israel, but the story of the Exodus. It was the story of the freeing of their ancestors from slavery that formed Israel and thus informed the creation myth. God rests on the seventh day and makes it holy to set a pattern for people forever. This nation of former slaves writes into its cultural constitution that no one, not even a slave, is to work seven days. Everyone gets a day of rest, because God rests. The corporate memory of the experience of slavery is transformed into the principle of sabbath, and by extension, jubilee.

Doing what we love to do makes work not seem like work, at least most of the time. This is a divine gift, what anthropologist Joseph Campbell used to call “following your bliss.” And it struck me that this is exactly what God does, if we just add “for the Other” to the formula: Do what you love to do...for the Other. Since it is God’s nature to be/do-for-others, God’s self-giving in creation is a manifestation of who God is. “Do” and “be” in God is one and the same. To the extent that we are able to “do” and “be” for others, so that our work and play are for the good and life of others, our work and play, all of our life, participates in agape, the divine nature of God-is-love.

So this is now yet another thing I shall add to my list of things to pray for for my children: that they will always find work that is more than just a paycheck, more than just a way to kill time. That they will always look for and find work that is both their bliss, something they love to do, and life-giving for others, whether it’s helping other people live happier and more productive lives, or writing a poem or story or song to edify them, or whatever it may be. That, and finding a partner and/or good friends to help see them through life, discern its mysteries and negotiate its bends and turns. 

Anyway, nothing too deep there, just a sigh from a Catholic boy who doesn’t quite see the move from working class to upper middle class for the great-grandchildren of Catholic immigrants in America to have been a universally good thing. Seeing Labor Day go from a celebration of solidarity to a placid threshold between summer and fall doesn’t seem like a step forward. The day is not without its lessons to anyone with ears to hear, even if you are, like me, one of the ironic class summoned from sleep to the chapel office before the malls open or the grills are fired up in summer’s ninth inning.

Labor Day: Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.    (Be!)

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