Q: This year our country observes the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on Jan. 15, his actual birthday. How might we Catholics celebrate this day in the liturgy?
A: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a passionate preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and example and a martyr for justice. However, he was not a Roman Catholic and he is not a canonized saint, so we Catholics do not celebrate a feast day in his honor at the Eucharist or in the Liturgy of the Hours as we do for saints in our liturgical calendar.
If he were a canonized saint, we would likely celebrate his memorial, as we do for martyrs, on the day of his death, April 4, not on his birthday, Jan. 15. The Lutheran liturgical calendar includes an optional commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “renewer of society, martyr,” on Jan. 15, his birthday.
Yet, we Catholics do well to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his holiday, and thus remember the dream for which he lived and died and make it our own.
As a Mass celebrant on this holiday, I like to use the Missal’s prayers “For the Preservation of Peace and Justice,” and Eucharistic Prayer for Use in Masses for Various Needs IV, which prays that the church may “stand as a living witness to truth and freedom, to peace and justice, that all people may be raised up to a new hope.”
I also include some words about Dr. King in my homily. We Catholics might join others in generous acts of volunteer service on what has become known as the national Martin Luther King Day of Service.
The African-American spiritual “Deep River” asks us if we don’t “want to go, to that gospel feast / That promised land, that land where all is peace? / Walk into heaven and take a seat.”
We do hope to have a seat at the heavenly banquet. But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that we won’t be able to enjoy God’s heavenly feast of peace if we haven’t begun to savor its goodness and richness, right here and right now. We make a procession to that heavenly banquet table hand-in-hand, heart-to-heart, with victims of prejudice, violence and injustice, with those who most need to taste God’s love in Jesus Christ and find in it the foretaste of God’s everlasting salvation.
I have enjoyed watching the members of sports teams re-arranging the tables in the student refectory, called the “Reef,” at St. John’s University, so that everyone can sit together at one table. Of course, the football players and wrestlers have plenty of strength to put two tables together easily.
In a sense, that is what Jesus tried to do in his ministry. He tried to bring all people together to share God’s banquet of mercy and love. Jesus himself was that mercy and love made flesh and dwelling among us; we hope to dwell with him forever in God’s eternal home.
That is why Dr. King, through his ministry and witness, tried to bring all people, black and white, together at one table: literally as he physically tried to end segregation at lunch counters throughout the South, and spiritually as he united clergy, religious and lay persons of all religious denominations in his efforts for equality and justice.
For nearly 50 years I have kept a two-sided, handmade and crayon-colored sign, but a sign not made or colored by me. When I hold it, I am transported back to April 1968, when I carried it from the Church of the Ascension through the streets of north Minneapolis on Palm Sunday.
I was part of a group of people mourning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated only days before. I don’t think that I had ever done anything like that before: marching publicly to express outrage and sorrow. But it seemed like the right place to be, the right thing to do. The sign, still wrapped in rain-proof plastic, has the word “KING” on one side, and the words, “Christ is risen,” on the other. A nice juxtaposition, I think, because Dr. King served Jesus Christ, our crucified-yet-risen King, unto death.
This was the second procession that I had been part of that day. Earlier I had been part of my parish’s Palm Sunday procession, which made its solemn way from the gym to the church. These two processions symbolize for me the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew, with all African-Americans, that we dare not bring any feeble worship before the Lord. But he also knew that powerful worship will empower us and send us out into the world for service.
The “procession” of our worship in church must be matched by the “procession” of our ministry to others, the non-violent ministry of truth and freedom for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life. For that worship and that ministry are how we drink deeply of God’s salvation.
“Lord God almighty, as we remember your merciful love in Jesus Christ, we sing our “hallelujahs” for Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and we ask that there be plenty good room in your kingdom for us and for all your children, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.