“Don’t wear white after Labor Day.” The Voice of America’s “Learning English” website explains that this tradition developed because white clothing used to be lighter (in weight, not just in color) than other clothes and so was worn more in the summer. This practical custom became a fashion norm amongst the wealthy and thus a dictum was born. The VOA then offers this advice: “You may want to be careful about wearing white to an American-style Labor Day barbecue. The trouble is not fashion — it is ketchup. If it spills, the popular red tomato sauce can ruin a nice set of clothes.”
Last Sunday we heard Jesus warn us in the Gospel (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) against putting human traditions ahead of following the Commandments of God. St. Gregory the Great, whom the Church honors today (Friday), as we enter Labor Day weekend, often challenged his fellow Christians (as well as himself) to truly observe Christ’s Commandments, instead of just the traditions which they enjoyed following.
Speaking about the harvest of souls that Christ wishes to bring into Heaven, St. Gregory preached, “We can speak only with a heavy heart of so few laborers for such a great harvest, for although there are many to hear the Good News, there are only a few to preach it. Look about you and see how full the world is of priests, yet in God’s harvest a laborer is rarely to be found; for although we have accepted the priestly office, we do not fulfill its demands.”
This harsh judgment which this sainted pope had about the clergy he did not spare from himself. “Lest what I claim should seem unjust to anyone, I accuse myself of the very same thing, although I fall into it unwillingly.” He then described how the distraction of so many demands of his “job” caused him to not do the more important things — prayer, admonishing sinners to repent, growing in virtue himself, etc.
“We are set to guard the vineyards, but do not guard our own, for we get involved in irrelevant pursuits and neglect the performance of our ministry,” this great saint admitted. He saw that his distraction from the Spiritual life, to handle the temporal needs of the Church, then could lead to distractions which were not even about those needs, but just useless things (or even sins).
Christ warned us about human traditions because He knew that they could derail us from giving our all to loving God with our whole being and to loving our neighbor as ourselves. Even doing things which are morally neutral, but which are taking us away from what God wants us to do, can be the beginning of a path away from God.
Given that St. Gregory died in 604 AD, we can see that this is not a new problem. His time was not “the good old days.” A few centuries beforehand, St. Augustine complained about such nostalgia. “You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you were not living in them,” he wrote.
Augustine listed various challenges humanity had faced from the beginning of time. “From the time of that first Adam to the time of his descendants today, man’s lot has been labor and sweat, thorns and thistles. Just think what these past ages were like! Is there any one of us who does not shutter to hear or read about them? Far from justifying complaints about our own time, they teach us how much for which we have to be thankful.”
If you think that Americans complain a lot right now, this isn’t something new. Twenty-seven years ago Robert Hughes wrote a bestseller, “Culture of Complaint, A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America.” So, in some ways it is a “tradition” to complain in our society.
But as St. James told us last Sunday, we need to be part of the solution, instead of just being part of the problem, we need to “be doers of the Word and not hearers only.”
As we take a break from working this weekend, let us take some of this free time to pray and see how we can make all of our labors, be they paid, volunteer, or around the home, be oriented to doing God’s will and not just some human traditions.