[Address: University Service Awards, 2012]
John Paul II, in his encyclical on work, Laborem Excercens, speaks about a “Gospel of Work.” He takes his inspiration from the simple fact that Jesus, the sanctifying Word of the Father, worked as a carpenter, and therefore sanctified the work of a laborer. John Paul II found inspiration from the injunction in Genesis that the human being is mandated to “subdue the earth” to human ends, and works to fulfill this injunction. Even in the sweat and toil of the carpenter, as was the case with Jesus, the earth is subdued to human needs. But work is dignified not only in its object, “subduing the earth to human needs” or humanizing the earth; it is dignified in its subject, its being the actual expression of human creativity, actual human be-ing, accomplished “in the image of God.” Whether work is toil to build the dwellings of man and furnish them with human warmth, or labor to draw from the earth its fruit and fill the tables of festivity with food and drink for human celebration, work as the expression of creativity of the human being, is in itself dignified.
We can bring this reflection a step further. In being the incarnate Word of our loving Father, spoken and incarnated in our world to redeem ourselves and all of creation from sin, Jesus sanctified work in his own working impelled by his Father’s mission to redeem the world, to liberate it from sin, to free it from darkness, to restore it to light. In laboring to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God, in teaching people how to enter into a genuine, healthy relation to God, in struggling against the toxic teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees that poisoned people’s relationships to themselves and to God, in ministering to the sick and restoring them to health, in mentoring his disciples, helping them to understand his message and their roles in helping him spread this message, in exposing himself as the Bread of Life essential for salvation, he not only actually advanced the Kingdom, but he sanctified the work of teaching, preaching, counseling, healing, mentoring, and redemption in his own personal activity – activity that was so controversial he was eventually murdered for it. We know however the power of his message conquered death in unending life, giving to his work irreversible dignity, dignity in which we participate in our own work as Christians. Perhaps the most poignant image of the dignity of work is that of Jesus, the Lord and Master, stooping down to wash the feet of his disciples. It is the image of sacred dignity in what was once considered the most abject form of work. It is done with the intention of allowing us to participate in that dignity: “If I the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14).”
I bring up these profound dimensions of the Gospel of work – that work subdues the earth to human needs, that work is man’s participation in God’s creativity in creation, that work is also our participation in the redeeming activity of God – to underscore the dignity and revere the sanctity of the work that is done in our ADDU, and so add depth to the joy of our celebration of Service Awards this evening. Our work is celebrated not only in our gala atmosphere, our festive attire and our fiesta cuisine, but in recalling its sacred context and the basis of its abiding worth. We work not only to earn a salary large enough only to allow us to continue working in drudgery. We work to “subject the earth to the human needs” of our families and of our society – as God commands, and to subject those needs to increasing humanization. But we also work in collaboration with, better, in companionship with Jesus, who himself labors to liberate us from forces that enslave us to sin, evils that dehumanize humanity, compulsions that militate against man’s entry into the Kingdom of God. That is certainly a part of the mission and vision of this university, which is not just a business machine for making money in which you are but cogs, but a human community dedicated to truth, dedicated to communicating, discovering, and spreading truth, truth that in truth cannot remain merely conceptual, but forces its own actualization in work.
We celebrate therefore not simply longevity in drudgery, the fact that some people have been able to grit their teeth and endure humanly-draining toil over five, ten, fifteen or fifty years, but depth in the meaning of our work. Ours is not just a job with a price tag. Ours is a mission in human humanization – which in the incarnated Christ is a mission in human divinization. It is a mission that we accept in freedom and responsibility, that is less a contract between an employer and an employee (however important this contract is!), and more of a commitment to me in being myself, or to me in my personal responsibility to creation, to society, the people I know and choose to love in society, and to its God. It is a mission demanded from within, the rejection of which would void all that which is within. It is a mission carried out in friendship, friendship in the Lord, especially as in love we stoop down to wash one another’s feet, and occasionally stoop down to forgive one another, or bow down needing forgiveness. We celebrate this work in the lives of those who mark milestones in the journey of their service at the Ateneo de Davao, but especially in those who on this day wrap up their service. We celebrate in gratitude. For the deepest gift in our university community is the gift of ourselves to each other in service. Like good wine, that gift matures with age. Like good wine, it is most appreciated when fully consumed and finally emptied.
There is no way this life-long, self-immolation in service can be adequately compensated. We can only say to our honorees, and especially to our retirees: Thank you! The Germans say, “Vergelt’s Gott!” The Ilokanos say, “Diyos ti agnina!” The Bikolanos say, “Diyos mabalos!” May it be God who rewards you as we all turn to him with the words of the psalm: “You prepare a banquet for me in the sight of my foes. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows” (Ps. 23:5)