MLKing the Holiday

16 Jan

As the father of two dark-skinned, biracial sons, I have mixed feelings about Martin Luther King Day.  How will I explain this annual celebration to them as they get older?

On the one hand, I have several misgivings about this relatively new holiday. After all, in his private life MLK was reportedly no saint, and surely the civil rights movement is bigger than any one individual–even one as formidable as Dr. King. And this at a time when we’re downsizing holidays, when even Lincoln and Washington no longer have their own holidays but rather get lumped together into Presidents’ Day.

Maybe instead of a new holiday we could have added a civil rights dimension to our Independence Day celebration, as finally all races in our land are “free at last.”

I guess I’m also a little frustrated about society’s encroachment on religious holy days. Sundays in our culture have become more of a sequel to Saturday than a day set aside for worship, family, and rest from one’s labors. I’m concerned about days of extraordinary religious significance, such as Good Friday, becoming more “ordinary,” and Holy Days of Obligation becoming such a lost cause that many Church leaders feel compelled to move them to Sundays, presumably because at least then there’s a better chance of getting people to show up for Mass.

I realize that’s a lot to put on MLK Day. But then there’s also the political agendas that are unmistakably linked to the celebration. In that regard, the day is quite PC. Just an hour ago, for example, I heard ESPN link the holiday to the “gay” rights movement. While most national holidays bring everyone together, MLK Day strikes some discordant notes, despite the worthy goal of celebrating the achievements of Dr. King.

Despite all that, since MLK Day is here to stay for the foreseeable future, I have chosen to enjoy the holiday, for four reasons:

(1) Hello! It’s a holiday!  Who wants to look a gift day off in the mouth?  While it’s not a Sunday, it’s still a fitting day for worship, rest, and relationship-building within the family. So this can be a really great day if we use it well.

(2) Okay, MLK was not a saint, but neither were most of our Founding Fathers, yet we rightly revere them for their role in the formation of our country. MLK did some courageous things that have had a lasting impact on our culture. The day gives us a chance to consider this impact and to see how much farther we need to travel to overcome racial divisions.

(3)  Even as we celebrate MLK Monday, we still must not lose sight of the holiday par excellence: Sunday, the Lord’s Day.  MLK Day is all day, not just 45 min. or an hour. So, too, our Sunday observance should be all day. How often do we forget that keeping the Lord’s Day holy goes beyond simply “getting to Mass,” important as that is? For more on that subject, click here. MLK Day and all secular holidays can teach us how to “rest” in the deepest sense, which could carry over into the way we look at Sundays and other holy days.

(4) Despite my sons’ African-American roots, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how little racism I’ve encountered. Sure, there’s the occasional ignorant comment, but for the most part–thanks in large part to MLK–my boys aren’t subjected to the bigotry that existed even in my youth. This day gives me, and all of us, a chance to reflect on the greater spiritual reality that nobody has to sit at the back of the bus, that nobody is a second-class citizen in the eyes of God. As St. Paul wrote: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

So let’s stay on message and “MLK” the holiday for all it’s worth!

An earlier version of this article appeared at Catholic Hour, the blog of My Catholic Faith Delivered.

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