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A. The Christian Meaning of Work
God imposed work as a punishment when he expelled man from paradise. By the sweat of his face shall he till the earth, which brings forth thorns and thistles. Only in the context of this alienation of man as well as nature from God does the character of work as punishment become clear. Even in the Old Covenant, work (even, for example, priestly work) was marked by this distance from God. Work receives a new meaning only through the Incarnation of God in Christ; man’s distance from God changes. Insofar as the Son becomes God’s worker, both man’s work and the objects of man’s work (and this includes intellectual work) immediately move toward God. Everything that came from the Father was included by the Son in his plan of salvation, and from here it is given a new meaning: the meaning of redemption.
The life of the Lord is a unified whole: from the manual work of his youth, to the difficult work of his public ministry, to the still more difficult way of the Cross that leads to Resurrection and Ascension. Everything is a single, visible return of man to God, in which the Son of Man brings us human beings to his own divinity, to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Nothing of what Christ accomplishes is separated from us; he carries us along, and so we go with him. Christian work attempts consciously to bring this movement to completion. Whatever work man does, he can do it for God. With every endeavor, with the most insignificant efforts, man can be certain that God receives the work of his hands and his spirit. Work is never in vain, because no movement toward God was ever for nothing. Work has an eternal meaning conferred by the Resurrection and Ascension.
When Christ died, he left behind few Christians. He planted a seed in the earth whose yield remained practically invisible. If we compare the divinity of his being, words, and deeds with what he achieved on earth, it would seem most appropriate to speak of futility. And yet he loved all unto death on the Cross to atone for our sins. This love remains inseparable from the love that leads him back to the Father. He loved all in the unity of divine love, the greatest that exists. The few disciples are like a visible pledge given to him by the Father. In this the Son knows that the Father has given him all. Every one of these is a worker, and, ultimately, each works in his own way, patiently or impatiently following the directions of the Father, who assigns work to man.
From the perspective of the world, man cannot say whether work has essentially changed the condition of the earth or whether above all it has become a threat for him. However, it certainly has fulfilled its meaning as punishment and as a way to go together with the suffering Son to the Father. What becomes visible does so in faith: it is a way that offers a promise to be fulfilled; it is also a punishment that leads to absolution as the sign of an infinite confession received in grace. Through work man confesses his distance from God,his first sin (which is never simply left behind him), and also every actual sin. However, human work will never attain that radiant character that is possessed and conferred by the sacrament of reconciliation. Human work remains at the highest level fragmentary. It might seem daring to compare work to a sacrament. A sacrament is a pure invention of divine love and its eternal, mysterious fullness. By contrast, behind every work lurks sin. This is seen in the fact that the worker remains a sinner even when the meaning of his work is directed toward grace. All of man’s failures pass through the middle of his work. It is seldom that one allows something of grace to shine through one’s work: for example, in a painting or a piece of music in which we see or hear only the rejoicing of joy, instead of sighs of exhaustion, doubts, and troubles.
The Church, too, works as an institution. Confession occurs in the Church, which is ‘‘work’’ for both the sinner who confesses and the presiding priest. Work occurs throughout the entire structure of the Church where the word is proclaimed and the sacraments are distributed. Also the work of keeping God’s commandments occurs in the Church. We should love God and neighbor, and this love is work. It is work sanctioned by the triune God in such a way that its character as punishment is constantly overshadowed by its character as grace. In countless places the seeds of work are sown, and their fruit is divine love. Work is practically only a form, and the content is a love that is always given by God. When a priest or anyone genuinely builds up the Church or works on her foundations, he does not see the work of his hands, for the fruit opens up beyond the visible world in the kingdom of heaven. He works for the kingdom, whose seed he attempts to sink into the earth with his last strength. Of course, not everyone who works on earth can know the final meaning of his endeavors. But the Church knows it, because she, who is so close to God, hears something of his secret. As institution, she knows the final meaning of work: the individuals who live in the Church know this within the heavenly communion of saints; while those in the earthly Church still suffer it. One who works on earth and who, through the sacraments, hiddenly shares in the fulfillment is only seldom struck by a ray of grace that would illuminate something of the meaning of his work. It is as if a wanderer were to step for a moment out of the shadows into the sun in order then to continue on his way in the shadows. Work is the shadow, but in a place where at any moment a warm ray from the sun can break in—and here and there it does break through.
Whoever chooses a vocation (even if it were the vocation of perfect discipleship) and is qualified and resolved to pronounce his Yes can do so only to the extent that he submits to the basic law of having to work. Therein he can experience the joy of achievement; he can make the exhilarating discovery that all worldly things are created as ordered to the Son. Still, he cannot escape the drudgery of original sin. He must walk toward the Cross and thankfully gather all of the pieces of the Cross given to him by the Lord.
Faith in God and love for him are such sublime things that man is never done with them. Whenever he thinks he has walked through a room, a new door opens up and shows that he was only in an entryway. There is no end. This endlessness should not weigh man down. It is meant to be an honor, because God himself, who is ever greater, unveils himself to man. And man, who is led into this mystery, must always understand what is shown to him in order to be able to see the ever-greater God beyond it. God wants to pull man after him, and, indeed, he wants to include as well everything that occupies him, his greatest as well as his smallest work.
When someone plans to do something truly great, he knows that his life will not be long enough to fulfill this task. However, if he plans something smaller, something that appears to him more reasonable, the work will permanently carry his measure, and, because of his limitations, it will not satisfy. The limits that he sets himself will fall back on him as a burden. Only when he goes beyond his intention to accomplish something satisfying in an earthly way and opens himself to God can the meaning of his work open up for him. It is work within the ever-greater God, and its measure and goal, as well as its limits, are determined by God. And if God himself cares for human work, then he does this as God. In his infinity he lowers himself to encounter man; and thus man, with his plans and work, is raised up into the divine love. What appeared to man in his earthly work to have a certain greatness only now becomes something truly great. For it rests in God, and God bestows his attention on human work, a gift that work, in its transitoriness, could never have expected.
This hesitation means respect. One without respect lays out his own measures and traverses them with his own proud step. However, the one who is respectful and loving bows before the mystery of God and entrusts his plans and their realization to him. And God brings everything into a unity, into the harmony between the harvest of the world and his divine being that only God can establish. When God the Father sends forth his Son so that the Son can accomplish a work with his own hands, the Father does not cast him out of the unity; rather, he sends him from the unity of the triune God back into this unity. Jesus’ carpentry belongs to God. When Jesus resolves that he will finish shaping this beam today and tomorrow fix this tool, then this occurs within the divine order. He knows that the Father counts on it and needs it for his plans. The Father knows the worker as well as he knows the wood. That is why everyone can carry out his work following after the Son, indeed, alongside the Son, in order to let the Son incorporate him into the work of the triune God. The final meaning rests in God, and the greatness of human activity rests in its being directed toward God. Because man is the image of God, he may do all of his work for Christ’s sake and together with him. Thus he confers on his work the radiance of eternity that comes from faith. The trivial work of the day, endlessly fragmented and never finished, receives a complete and unified meaning in God. The beginning and the end lie therein. In this way, time will be gathered into God, and the transitory time of work will be gathered into the meaning of eternal time. Everything that counts and is counted, and everything that measures and is measured, has some share in the imperishable. If someone fundamentally does not want to work, he loses an essential access to eternity. He refuses a form of following Christ and unification with God. If he works as a believer, as someone who submits himself to God by allowing God finally to dispose of his achievements, then his work becomes an expression of his faith and love, and God will not disappoint his hope.
B. Work as Atonement in Christ
God’s creating the world as ordered to the Son opens two aspects: first, that the world is created, which means it is a work of God. Secondly, it is created with a purpose, namely, to give all things to the Son. Naturally, God’s activity is undivided, but our praying contemplation is allowed to distinguish these two aspects: the action and the action’s direction toward something. Furthermore, it is essential for us that God did this work before he imposed work as a punishment. Even in resting on the seventh day, his work is clearly characterized as such. It is meaningful as action and even more as purpose.
After the fall, when man again attempts to order his work to God, he can gain courage and strength from God’s creation of the world—God is his model —and perhaps still more from the Father’s intention to give away his work. The Father does not harvest the fruit for himself; rather, he leaves it for the Son. Likewise, man creates a work that goes beyond him and that is finally destined, not for him, but for the kingdom of God.
From the beginning, work describes a curve, and it passes through a cycle whose measure lies in eternity. When God placed man in the world, he already gave him a relation to eternity insofar as he created man with a view to the Son. Human work that is insignificant or that is limited to a purely earthly aim, and thus withdrawn from the great circulation of the divine purpose, would have to be characterized, not as atonement, but as sin. It would be activity in disobedience that, estranged as it is from its final purpose, is thus robbed of its fulfillment and final meaning.
When God the Father expelled the first humans from paradise, he already had his eyes on the future redemption in the Son. From God’s perspective, the yoke of work that was laid upon the sinners was already a way to the Son. A way of repentance. It was also, of course, a way to confession, because the Son will institute confession at the destination of the path, but also because work in itself contains an automatic confession of the sinner. He must accept the consequences of his original sin in order to attain what God has destined for him. However imperfect this confession may be, it contains traces of the insight that God wants to discover in us: as we carry out our work, he sees that we have accepted our punishment, and thus we are somehow on the way back to him.
And because work has an absolute meaning, everything man does can be brought into relation with this work. His conversation with God in prayer and everything done in the spirit of prayer are finally also a submission to the law of punishment and thus an opening to the law of grace. A monk in a contemplative order experiences in a very distinct way how the hours of prayer, for example, the Divine Office, fall under the law of work. In the same way, a pastor understands how the hours spent in the confessional or spiritual direction are hard work. Prayer tires out the one who prays; he carries its burden. It is clear to him that this work means atonement. In this way, every believer, no matter what work he does, shares in the obedience of a monk or pastor by carrying the burden of work in the spirit of prayer. In faith, each form of work is pertinent to and fits with every other form. In the first place, this applies to work of the same occupation or trade, then to all of the groups among themselves. They all belong to the same circulation of work, and they carry perhaps more than appears to be the case when they are considered individually. And because spoken prayer also belongs to work, some dimension of unspoken prayer lies in every work undertaken in faith. Taken together, the whole forms the work of atonement for guilty mankind, who is on the way to the Son and who has already been redeemed by the Son.
Man Before God, ch. 8