Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. The traditional day of celebration apparently was chosen by some unions in New York. Since I have spent some time abroad, I know the traditional global day of celebrating labor is May 1. Sometimes these international days of celebration can lead to political protest and disruptions. It seems President Cleveland was concerned about that, so he wanted to avoid that May date. So the first Monday in September was a safer alternative.
There are typical associations with Labor Day. When I was a kid, schools did not begin until after Labor Day. Typically, Labor Day is seen as the end of summer. That is probably why it is not the favorite holiday of young people: end of summer and beginning of school!
It also is seen as the beginning of the fall sports seasons. The professional football season begins following Labor Day. Most fall college sports kick off their seasons at this time of the year. And then, there are some anomalies. My little town celebrates Octoberfest in September! In so many of these celebrations, the end of summer gives way to autumn and the harvest season.
So Labor Day can be captured with twin themes: rest and harvest. It does not take much thought to see how clearly these two themes---rest and harvest---are also key pieces of any spirituality. Let’s look at how each plays a significant spiritual role.
Anyone from the Jewish or Christian traditions should already know about the importance of rest. The theme of rest is built into the fabric of the universe. According to the Genesis creation account, God worked at the creative endeavor for six days and then on the seventh, God rested. That theme is codified in the idea of Sabbath.
Sabbath was meant to be a day unlike the other days of the week. Clearly, work is necessary and valued. But Sabbath also seems to be necessary and valued. But often the idea of Sabbath is neither necessary nor valued. It seems in our American culture this has become very true. Once upon a time, there were “blue laws” which dictated against stores being open, etc. Historically this was rooted in the Christian cultural tradition, primarily the Puritan early heritage of our country. These blue laws were free Sundays from normal work, etc. Obviously, for Jews and Muslims and a host of others, Sundays are not holy days.
As usual however, we have gone overboard. By getting rid of blue laws, we seem to have lost the valuable idea of rest. Now everyone can work, play, and so forth 24/7, as the phrase goes---24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s not healthy. That’s not meaningful. That’s not spiritual.
A healthy, meaningful spirituality is a balanced spirituality. Not surprisingly, monks “get” this. For example, the Benedictine tradition builds the daily schedule around a balance of work and worship. Of course, worship is not necessarily rest, but like rest, it balances on obsession with work. It challenges the assumption that worth is determined solely by work. There is a place and role for rest.
The other theme of Labor Day is harvest. This is a seasonal theme. In our part of the hemisphere, spring is for planting, summer is for growing, and autumn is for harvest. It is the time for gathering the fruits of our labor. It is the season to enjoy. It is a time to celebrate accomplishments. It is a time for “thanksgiving.”
Yet again, many of us in this country do not do this very well. If our sense of worth is wrapped up in work, then enjoying the fruits of our work is not done very well. It is as if we don’t trust the legitimacy or value of enjoying the fruits of our labor. In fact, some of us even feel guilty if we are not busy---not at work. Again, this is not healthy.
We were not born workers. We were born babies! We were quite useless as workers for some time. But we are no longer babies. Adults often learn bad habits and choose to live stupidly. On Labor Day it is time to re-assess our spiritual condition. Two easy ways to do this is to ask about balance in life. Do I balance work (or busyness) with adequate rest? And do I have the ability to enjoy the fruits of my labor and the good things in my life?
Or if you want one overriding question, ask yourself how you determine your worth in life? If it is determined solely by work…then you have work to do!