Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Humorous Funeral Cards: Of Luther, Chicago, and Beating Death

3 Jan

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
~ Wendell Berry

rare-medium-well-done-bookstore-2Tidying up around my house can be an exercise in liberal arts education – you should receive CEUs for it.

Like this morning: A random copy of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey abandoned on the front table; a Bible (RSV) here, a book of saints there; Stephen King and Christopher Dawson, The Wall Street Journal and The Catholic Worker a jumbled, lettered mess, like the rest of the house. Who’s in charge around here anyway?

And then, some comic relief: a Dilbert collection (open at random), let’s see:

DILBERT: How are you coming on designing your greeting cards for death occasions?

DOGBERT: Okay. Now I’m working on the humorous angle.

That’s not the punchline, but it’s plenty funny in itself, and it reminds me of a day I was behind the counter at the Chicago Logos Bookstore many years ago. A coiffed, be-furred woman hastily rummaged through our greeting cards, and then approached me in a huff. “Are all your sympathy cards out?” she demanded.

“I believe so,” was my reply. “Can I help….”

She interrupted – “Don’t you have any humorous sympathy cards?”

I paused; my manager, Dale, standing nearby, the perpetual cigarette dangling from his lips, froze; somewhere, I imagine, a cricket sounded. “Humorous sympathy cards?” I timidly ventured.

“Yeah,” she fired back, “like, ‘I don’t give a darn’” – only she didn’t say darn.

Dale prudently turned away, and I managed a straight face somehow – grace, no doubt. “I’m sorry, nothing like that.” She turned and shook the dust from her feet.

It’s a story I’ve told many times (as my longsuffering kids can testify), and I’ve got lots more where that came from. Working at a bookstore in the heart of the city was an adventure – rarely a dull moment – and you could always count on having a story to tell when you made your way home in the evening.

In the case of my card-shopper friend, it was a story with a moral as well. After she left the store, Dale and I chuckled over her request – “Could you believe that?” Of course, it would be wholly cruel to send such a card to anyone, and so it’s unthinkable that any store would sell them (besides, I suppose, some entity like The Onion).

greco_francisNevertheless, the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I’ve come to appreciate the encounter’s memorable association of humor with death – never the pain, nor the bereavement and loss, but only the end of life itself. There’s no question that death is an enemy – our “last enemy” in the words of the Catechism – but we Christians are bound to laugh in the face of that enemy, for he’s already beaten. “O Lord God, ought we not to rejoice and not only serve gladly,” wrote Martin Luther of our response to redemption, “but suffer and laugh at death for the sake of him who has given us such a treasure?”

I love St. Francis, and I get his Canticle’s embrace of Sister Death, “from whom no living man can escape.” But if death really is an enemy, then it deserves the card-shopper’s insolence and Luther’s sass. “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell,” he instructed, “we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it?’”

There are worse things than death – including not being able to laugh at it.
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Antichrists I Have Known

5 Jan

Children, it is the last hour;
and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming,
so now many antichrists have appeared.
~ St. John

A generous friend that knows we have teenagers (four at last count; five later on this year) passed along his 20-year-old Toyota for 300 bucks – basically the price he would’ve gotten from the junk yard.

Toyotas are hardy vehicles, to be sure, but twenty years is twenty years, and the car is in pretty rough shape. It runs though, and has heat, so we gladly and gratefully accepted it in anticipation of yet another one of our teens taking to the roadways eventually.

Here’s the thing, though: My kids have taken to calling this new acquisition the ‘Chariot of Damnation’ – apparently an appellation borrowed from Greek mythology via the popular Percy Jackson series.

No offense to my generous friend, of course, nor to the aging Toyota – as I said, it runs, and that’s all we care about.

In fact, it’s understood around my house that a name like ‘Chariot of Damnation’ is a term of endearment. It’s a family tradition – like our decrepit Honda that went by the Star Wars moniker ‘Millennium Falcon,’ in honor of Han Solo’s cantankerous smuggling freighter. “She’s the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy!” in the words of Lando Calrissian. Well, maybe not our old Honda.

Anyway, then thereseriesi1954560cs.8449‘s the granddaddy of all car names: ‘The Antichrist,’ an epithet applied to the scurrilous Land Rover in that rich and quirky film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. We’ve never owned anything that exactly qualifies, but my brother adopted the name for a secondhand Land Rover he used to own. It was a pain to drive, but we sure got a lot of mileage out of the name: “Hey, can I borrow The Antichrist tonight?” and “I think The Antichrist needs an oil change.”

Aside from idiosyncratic automobiles, candidates for antichrist abound, with the biblical original being one of the Roman emperors – most likely Nero, who ruled in the years 54–68. Nero’s antichrist heirs are legion (no biblical pun intended), and it’s somewhat of a parlor game to take the obscure apocalyptic references in Daniel and Revelation, and see how they might apply to your foes.

These days, for instance, prominent antichrist candidates hail from boprince-william_1681222cth sides of the political aisle: Dick Cheney on the right, for example, and Obama on the left. George Soros, the progressive billionaire, is another popular target, as is Prince William apparently – that’s a new one that I just came across today. Fun!

And antichrist squabbling has been around for a long time, although the field of candidates used to be considerably narrower than it is today. An historical standout is Frederick II, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor of the 13th century. Proclaimed stupor mundi (the Wonder of the World in his lifetime, Frederick was a singular medieval monarch, enlightened in many respects, and even tolerant, relatively speaking. But his conflicts with the Church made him the source of intense speculation among the apocalyptic cognoscenti. Dante placed the Emperor on the third tier of Hell, for example, and the radical FrFrom a late 13th century manuscript in Biblioteca Vaticanaanciscan Joachimites openly declared him antichrist, as did Pope Gregory IX.

Speaking of popes: There is no antichrist field more ripe for the harvest than the papacy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel! Go ahead, name a pope, and I’ll bet you can Google up loads of antichrist accusations in a matter of minutes. It’s almost a cottage industry among fundamentalist scaremongers, and it’s been going on since the Reformation. Popes were antichrists to virtually all the Reformers, including Martin Luther. “I feel much freer,” Luther wrote, “now that I am certain the pope is the Antichrist.”

Luther was misguided about the identity of the Antichrist, but he was spot on when it came to how we should battle him: Humor! C.S. Lewis quoted Luther in the first pages of The Screwtape Letters as saying, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Of course, antichrists are no joke, but if Luther’s right, then a glib treatment of antichrists is just the ticket, including joking about the latest 666 conspiracy theories and taking advantage of amusing movie vehicle references. It’s like giving the devil the raspberry – pbbbbbbbbt!

Here’s the thing, though: Antichrist is an equal opportunity employer, and the really funny thing about antichrist handicapping is that we don’t have to search all the far to find him. “Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist,” according to St. John. In other words, the antichrist is me whenever I deny Christ through my words and actions.

Thus, when I give into anger on the road or at home, or when I slouch off and give full rein to sloth in my work or prayers, I’m the antichrist – I am, not George Soros or George Bush, but me! Such is the case when I deny Chrisprayert through my petty selfishness and envy, my barely disguised greed and wanton pride. Who needs emperors and presidents for antichrists? I fit the bill quite nicely, thank you.

Tonight I went to a late Mass by myself because I had stayed home earlier with a sick child when everyone else went to church. The severe weather and drifting snow meant that only a dozen folks showed up, and the priest congratulated us for making it despite the weather. “You’re all heroes and heroines,” he said, but I don’t think so, at least not in my case. I was there because I needed to be there, and I suspect that was true for everybody else. We craved the “comfort and joy,” as we sang in the closing hymn. We needed Jesus “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.”

And that calls to mind something else Martin Luther said:

So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it?’

Yes, I deserve to go to hell. Yes, I’m the antichrist. What of it? Pbbbbbbbbbt! And here’s Luther’s own follow-up:

For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!

Tidings of comfort and joy indeed.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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