In this “Age of Discouragement” (to coin a phrase) the study of economics can be depressing. It’s commonly called “The dismal science.” As the old joke has it, “Economists have predicted ten of the last five recessions.” Capitalists and communists fight each other. Some companies lay waste to the environment and ruin the reputation of honest entrepreneurs. But the machinery of the economy helps us not only to understand human nature but to explain our relationship with God’s creation.
Honest commerce is necessary and wholesome. We take the raw materials of God’s good creation, form them into products (or services), and use them — or sell them at mutually agreeable prices. By the work of human hands, we use God’s gifts, harvest His trees, and build our houses. Add virtuous living and our dwelling places become happy and peaceful communities. Our handiwork, accompanied by the free exchange of goods and services, is essential to commerce and affirms our dignity.
Productive work is satisfying. We delight in the fruits of our labor, relaxing with family at home, enjoying recreation time, or just gazing with delight on our handiwork. Furthermore, the generosity of honest work and commerce is contagious and begets generosity in others.
But we can abuse commerce. God gives us the freedom to use His gifts and our hands for good purposes, but because of Original Sin we often succumb to the tug of evil inclinations. We can use the knife we produce from iron ore to cut a loaf of bread or use it to murder a brother, as Cain murdered Abel.
Sin deforms the natural connection we have with God’s creation. The disobedience of Adam and Eve transformed the wood of the tree in the Garden – the symbol of God’s gift of life and freedom – into a grotesque sign of sin and death. How easy it is to use God-given gifts and talents for sinfully selfish purposes. In so doing, we also abuse the tree from the Garden of God’s creation and fashion crosses of torment for ourselves and others.
But God did not abandon us to our self-imposed crucifixions but restores and redirects the work of our hands. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Just as disobedience brought sin into the world, Mary’s loving obedience brought forth the Redeemer.
The sinful human hands that constructed the Cross are healed and strengthened by another set of Hands. Jesus takes up the wood of the Cross and, by obedience to the Father, He restores the wood to its original dignity lost by sin, and to even further glory.
Through the Passion and glorious Resurrection of Jesus – His “salvific work” – the wood of the Cross once again becomes the Tree of Life, a new creation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17), a sign of final victory over evil. So we gaze upon the Cross with a holy ambivalence. We not only ponder the evil work of our hands; we rejoice in the work of the Hands that save us.
But our restoration to integrity is more comprehensive. We are not only recipients of God’s saving work; we also contribute to it. The multiplication of the loaves in the Gospel hints of that dignity. Jesus takes the loaves, blesses them, and multiplies them to feed the hungry crowds. The foreshadowing of the great gift of the Blessed Eucharist is unmistakable. But Jesus blessed the loaves of bread we presented Him. God lavishes gifts upon us, and when we use them according to His will, He blesses and compounds the work of our hands.
In the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, God magnifies our generosity in all its forms. The bread and wine that become the Blessed Eucharist at the Last Supper also represent the work of our hands – our contribution to the saving work of Jesus. For all time, our relationship to God’s creation in the “food chain” not only includes work that produces food for the body but food for the soul.
Hence, the offertory prayers of the Mass borrow a phrase from economics to affirm our dignity in economic commerce:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.
It is stunning to realize that the bread and wine that becomes the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus is indeed the “work of human hands.” With sacrificial love ignited by God’s grace, God gives us the privilege and dignity to participate in the saving work of Jesus as His holy instruments.
From the golden fields of grain to the reception of Holy Communion, God not only restores the integrity of our relationship to His good creation, but He also blesses our work as part of His “food chain” of mutual charity. (Jesus also reveals the right relationship we have with “the environment” by fine-tuning the meaning of our “dominion” over creation!) This generosity promises, in union with the love of Jesus, that new heaven and new earth prophesied in the Book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:1-4)
There is much to accomplish through hard work in the Divine Economy. There is little time for discouragement, but plenty of time for generosity and encouragement.
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