The Cathedral of St. Philip - Atlanta, GA

Birthdays and Deathdays

Not many folks commemorate April 4 these days. This year, April 4 occurs during Holy Week in the Christian Church, just before the Masters Golf Tournament, and just after the opening of baseball season. Maybe there is too much going on to remember April 4!

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed as he stood on a small balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Every American ought to take a pilgrimage to that site. When I first visited, I was struck by the Lorraine Motel itself; low and obscure, it is a stark reminder of every segregated small town motel of the 1960's.

Most folks remember Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday. It is much happier that way. We take a national holiday on the third Monday of every January. Some of us observe a parade or special service; others simply take the day off. That's what birthdays are for!

However, the Christian Church rarely remembers a saint or holy person on their earthly birthdays. Rather, the Church remembers the days of deaths. Our modern western world all too often avoids death; in fact, we tend to deny it! But not the Christian. The Christian realizes that the day of one's death is the day of one's entrance into glory. And it is on a person's death that the rest of us can recall a life well lived.

When my own church, the Episcopal Church, placed Martin Luther King, Jr, on the calendar of saints, we offered a choice. In an acknowledgement of strong cultural practice, we allowed that King could be formally commemorated either on his birthday or his deathday. Again, most folks remember his birthday.

But this week, the week of April 4, 2007, is also a good time to remember him. For during the year 2007, this week is Holy Week. This is the week when we remember the life, death, and new life of Jesus himself. We follow the journey of Jesus from the glory of Palm Sunday to the sorrow of Good Friday to the surprising exaltation of Easter Sunday. During this week, we proclaim that death is not the last word.

When we remember the death of Martin Luther King, Jr, we are also remembering that death is not the last word. The reason King is a saint is that he showed us that death cannot stop true life. Violence cannot stop gospel. Evil, as strong as it is, cannot stop the Good.

To remember Martin Luther King, Jr, just as we remember any saint, is to continue living into the same life that saint lived. Yes, Martin saw the mountain top before he died; but he also accepted the call"”like Moses"”to lead folks to the mountaintop. He accepted the call to lead folks"”black and white and all sorts"”from oppression to freedom. Today, we remember his death with honor; and, in good faith, we hope to continue his ministry of liberation.

Sam Candler
4 April 2007

Sam Candler is Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, Georgia. Contact him at