BY BROR ERICKSON
One of the great themes of the Game of Thrones is the personification of Death, most concretely in the form of the Night King, supreme commander of the blue-eyed nightwalkers. Arya Stark, Eddard Stark's third child, is catechized early in the cult of Death by her fencing instructor, Syrio Forel, the First Sword of Braavos. "There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death, not today." Of course, he repeats this just before meeting his own death in a doomed fight sacrificing himself to save Arya.
In last night's episode Syrio's voice spoke to Arya through the Red Woman, he spoke to Arya and reminded her of the simple creed in the cult of Death, not today. We all cheered as she tore into the Night King with a valerian steel dagger, and the horde of white walkers went with him. The Starks of Winterfell became the victors in a battle they seemed destined to lose. Not a bad way to spend the Second Sunday in Easter when we celebrate Christ's victory over death by the account of Doubting Thomas whose wishes are fulfilled when Christ offers him the wounds in His hands and side where Death died once and for all. In this text, Christ shares his victory over death with the disciples by breathing his new life into them that they can breathe new life into us through the forgiveness of sins pronounced in absolution.
This personification of death has been one of my favorite themes throughout the series. Here I see an echo of Biblical reality that I so often find lacking even in Christian sources. We live in a world that seems to know as little about what to do with death, as it knows what to do with life. But perhaps if we knew what to do about death, our lives would find more meaning, more purpose, the small mundane tasks we find depressing would be met with greater joy, jobs would become vocations, and our fifteen minutes of fame would not leave us so empty. "Death is the enemy, the first enemy and the last." Beric Dondarrion tells us in season seven, episode 6. Biblical scholars wonder if he is reading Paul of Tarsus. "But we all die," says John Snow. "The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him. That's all I know."
"The last enemy to be destroyed is Death." (1 Cor. 15:26) Here Paul personifies death, as he does elsewhere in his letters. According to the Bible, Death is not a natural thing in the circle of life as is so common a thought, even if empty and devoid of comfort at funerals or the ever-popular "celebrations of life" replacing them today. In my mind, these celebrations of life are feeble attempts to avoid the reality concerning the nature of death in a society that has perhaps lost understanding in Easter, and it is not society's fault. This is a problem that starts with the church which has lost her bearings. This is no more apparent than in the many funerals I have been to which have no proclamation of the gospel, Christ's victory over Death, whatsoever.
All is vanity as the preacher says in Ecclesiastes, everything under the sun is vanity, empty. As Luther tells us in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, "Under the Sun" is Solomon's way of designating this world without faith in God, in the face of Death. Death is what renders life meaningless in this world. If we did not die we would not ever question the meaning of any of it; we would just enjoy those things God has given us to enjoy in life, bread, and wine, the wife of our youth and the work of our hands. Yet in the face of death, these things seem pointless, so we often find ourselves striving for more in one way or another. Food, for instance, becomes an idol to be worshiped with gluttony, or a false god to be feared with bulimia. Wine is blasphemed as the source of all evil or given up for heroin when it fails to gladden the heart on its own. Family and fidelity become a source of self-righteousness or thrown away for adulterous adventures in a search for self-actualization. Work is seen as just a job, so we spend our vacations looking to go above and beyond in the solace of eco-tourism or mission trips to the end of the world. In the end, the substitutes become even more meaningless and fail to produce. Death laughs at us and then takes our life from us before we are even dead.
Yes, Death is the last enemy to be destroyed. When he is destroyed the meaningless mundane things of this life take on meaning and bring joy, life becomes something worth fighting for, not only our own but the life of others as well. Life becomes a precious gift to be savored. So Christians live every day with Arya's little creed telling Death, "not today" as long as we can.
Yes, we know Death was defeated by Christ once and for all. Yet we still spurn the dirt nap that waits for us all when we fall asleep in Christ. For us "...to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again." We know that death is gain for us, yet Christ's victory gives us reason to say, "not today." We belong to him. He is our Life. We live at his behest. So we are led to say not today in every way.
No, Christians understand that sometimes it is necessary to kill, to stand in defense of the innocent as Jon Snow and Beric discuss when they speak of their fight against the great enemy. In the many faces of death we say not today, when he asks us to make the cultish sacrifices of suicide, abortion or euthanasia promising happiness. We don't need them because we have Christ who suffered more for us than we will ever suffer for him in this life. We say not today. Knowing we no longer have to bend the knee to Death as a god, but because Christ turned the Spear of Longinus into dagger of valerian steel piercing the bowls of death, we have life eternal in his name. We serve him with our lives, bringing his victory to all whom we can with the forgiveness of sins. Because the god named Death played the Game of Thrones with Jesus, and Jesus won.
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