In the “church biz,” we have an official calendar to follow, often called the liturgical year or the church calendar. The Book of Common Prayer calls it “The Calendar of the Church Year” (pp. 15-33), which is then supplemented by Lesser Feasts and Fasts, recently renamed Holy Women, Holy Men. The worship lives of Episcopalians center around these seasonal rites.
In the meantime, contemporary society has given us the “Hallmark calendar,” for which all manner of greeting cards are sold. Then there are non-greeting card federal holidays, known in the UK as “bank holidays.” This Monday’s Labor Day is one of those.
Sometimes the liturgical year and the Hallmark calendar intersect and give us big liturgy and card days like Christmas Day. Though our church calendar does not include Labor Day, our hymnal, The Hymnal 1982, includes a beautiful hymn often sung in Episcopal and Anglican churches on the first Sunday of September.
Based on John 4:35-37 and Matthew 9:37-38, “Come, labor on,” a hymn for church workers, was published in London in 1859. Scottish hymn writer Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897) also translated German hymns and strongly supported home and foreign missions. She published four poetry collections including Hymns from the Land of Luther and Thoughts for Thoughtful Hours. “Come, labor on” appears in the latter.
The imagery in this text struck me from the first time I sang it when visiting an Episcopal parish in high school. It is a call-to-arms, if you will, to begin our academic year with energy and vigor: “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain?”
The text is framed with a beginning admonition, “Go work today,” and a final acknowledgment, “Servants, well done.” While some may hear only challenge in this text, I believe the middle stanza is quite encouraging: “Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear! No arm so weak but may do service here: By feeblest agents may our God fulfill his righteous will.”
But the best imagery is found in the final stanza, which bears printing here in poetry form:
Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Servants, well done.”
The hymn tune Ora Labora (pun intended) also has a grand rise-and-fall nature, which propels this strong, rich text ever forward musically.
In our 10:30 service on Sunday (Sept. 4), we will bless backpacks, briefcases, tablets – all tools of our modern labor. This grand hymn is perfect for the occasion. So, come to church this Sunday prepared to sing with Labor Day joie de vivre.