I am a Game of Thrones fan. I’ll admit I’ve not read the George R. R. Martin books, and, thus, purists might question the credentials of my fandom. But I have watched every episode of the HBO series, and I wait with bated breath for the next season. Game of Thrones satisfies me in numerous ways. Much of the first season was filmed on Malta, that tiny island nation with which I am obsessed. The map of Westeros intentionally mirrors the map of Great Britain, and its rival families hearken to Britain’s colorful history, with which I am also obsessed. Game of Thrones includes intrigue, dragons, wisps of magic, and medieval set piece battles. What’s not to like?
The best part of Game of Thrones, however, is only hinted at through most of the series. It is the motto of House Stark of Winterfell, the great noble family of the north. It is also the title of the series’ very first episode, first spoken from the mouth of the doomed Lord Eddard Stark, played brilliantly by Sean Bean. The motto, which hangs over the series like a shroud, is “Winter is coming.”
“Winter is coming.” The tone is ominous. It brings to mind the shortening of sunlight and the clouding of days. It refers to a dread, the timing of which cannot be chosen and the coming of which cannot be avoided, to that which is crouching but unseen, ready to strike at any moment. The Stark family motto is often uttered in response to someone who is oblivious to what’s really going on, one who misinterprets what he’s seeing, who tells himself a false narrative in the attempt to explain reality. The motto is mentioned as a caution to rethink things and prepare, so that when the wind whips and the clouds gather, one can react. One way to characterize the entire Game of Thrones series is as a dawning recognition by all those in Westeros that the words spoken by Eddard Stark in the first episode are, after all, true: Winter is coming.
George R. R. Martin himself has acknowledged that winter in Game of Thrones is more than meteorological. Yes, it refers to a literal coming blizzard, but it refers equally to those stark and difficult periods that befall each character in turn.[i] In their lives, winter can come in any season.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples come across a blind man. According to the disciples’ understanding of God and the world, someone must be at fault for the man’s disability. But they’re wrong (as I’ll discuss in a moment), and in response to their misperception of reality, Jesus says—sounding something like Eddard Stark—“Night is coming.”
Jesus is surely foreshadowing the actual event of his Passion. But Jesus is also referring to the shadows that at times befall each of us, when sunlight shortens and days cloud, when something crouching in the darkness strikes at us unaware. It can be anything. Just this past week, a minivan carrying some of Jill’s cousins was hit head on while traveling for spring break, causing massive injury and casting the lives of an entire family in shadow. And, there is disability; there is depression; there is addiction; there is malice; there is abuse. Any of these can occur in our personal lives; when we consider our communities, our nation, and our world, the shadows lengthen even further. Night is coming. It affects all of us, sooner or later.
As have people in every age, the disciples want to make sense of it, to explain why. So, using the man born blind as a foil, they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” The disciples are searching for a reason for the man’s condition, for its meaning, and in the absence of an obvious explanation they impute to the man’s blindness God’s punishment for sin.
We seek meaning in the inexplicable, too, and when purpose eludes us, we are just as likely as the disciples to presume God as the source of our darkness. The most tragic version I come across is when a child dies, and in the midst of such sorrow and pain someone well-intentioned who desperately seeks meaning in the event offers explanations to the family like, “God needed another angel in heaven.”
What kind of god is that? You see, this Gospel story is about much more than a miraculous healing. It asks, “What kind of god is God, and is God the source of the darkness in our lives?” And it answers these questions.
It is a misunderstanding of the character of God, Jesus says, to make God complicit in the darkness of our lives. God doesn’t punish sin with blindness any more than God wills the death of children. But where, then, is the meaning in the darkness to be found?
Consider again what Jesus does. He approaches the blind man, lays hands upon him, and grants him sight. Rather than cast blame on the man or his parents, or otherwise participate in the disciples’ attempt to make tidy and clear what is, in fact, opaque and random, Jesus acts to redeem something lost, to bring light where there was darkness.
And, Jesus is more than a faith healer. He is the incarnation of God, and Jesus expresses God’s hopes and passions for the world. Both the disciples and the people in the latter half of today’s story have defined God as a God of punishment and the source of the darkness that sometimes plagues us. But the reality of God is startlingly different from people’s expectations and prejudices. In his response to the blind man, Jesus reveals that it is not God’s wish, not ever, for us to be in darkness. God always desires for us to live in light, and God will act to push back the night and usher in the dawn.
Today’s Gospel reveals two additional things of note. First, notice that Jesus initiates today’s healing by grafting us into his act. Jesus says, before healing the blind man, “We [that means all those who follow Jesus] must do the work of the one who sent me.” Today no less than then, we must all be bearers of the light. For once, John Calvin got it right when he said, “Christ still irradiates the world; but he works now just as hard now through the ministry of his people as he did through his ministry of the flesh.”[ii]
And second, in a dramatic grammatical twist diluted in our English biblical translations, when the formerly blind man is asked his identity by the skeptical onlookers, he responds by saying, “I am,” which is the same provocative way in which Jesus identifies himself as the bearer of God’s grace throughout John’s Gospel. In other words, having received light from Jesus, the man becomes part of Jesus, and through him Jesus’ own light is then further extended in a darkened world.
Do you see what this means for us? We don’t merely come here as supplicants seeking forgiveness or the damaged seeking healing. We receive both, but we also receive the light that shines in the darkness. That’s how we prepare for the night that is coming. The light lives in us, and we go back into this world carrying its flame.
We live in Houston, and the metaphor of winter is easily lost on us. Some years—this one included—we don’t experience much winter at all. But we know darkness as well as anyone. Night is coming. Sooner or later, it always does. Recall that ancient proverb, attributed variously from China to Celtic Ireland: “I choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.” Gospel wisdom. God does not cause the darkness, but God does send the Christ light that makes darkness flee. And we are part of Christ, healed and grafted to him, made to shine.
[ii] Bruner, Frederick Dale. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 573.