Welcome back to the O-Antiphons! Today, we're talking about the key of David.
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel,
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
Come, break down the prison walls of death
for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death;
and lead your captive people into freedom.
We have a curious mix in this antiphon. We start with another connection to the house of David and the royal house of Israel. The first mention of the key of David appears in Isaiah's curious intervention into court politics in the days of the reforming king, Hezekiah (c715-686 BC).. Isaiah prophesies the downfall of Shebna, the erstwhile steward of the king and future appointment of Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, as steward. In this passage, Isaiah declares that God would grant the key to the house of David to Eliakim and that "what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open (Isaiah 22,22). There is some debate about what this key of David is (is it an actual key or not?), but it equally clear that, symbolically, the key is an emblem of the power delegated to the steward by a king of the house of David. That is, with this key, the steward controls entry into the palace and, thus, the heart of David's kingdom.
This is, of course, what makes this image rather puzzling. If we are right about the key of David in Isaiah being a token of the temporal power of the steward in the kingdom of Judaea, how is it that it appears here as part of the O Antiphons? What does the duties of a court official at the time of Hezekiah, almost seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, have to do with who Jesus is?
The appearance of keys, in Matthew 16, 19 seems to point to an answer, even if these keys are not specifically associated with the key of David. In this passage, Peter is given keys which symbolize something which looks suspiciously like a spiritual version of Eliakim, the steward's job. Peter, by being granted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is given a fairly unique position among the apostles in that his decisions for the Church, have binding force in this world and the next. Whether or not we want to say that this power was passed on to the successors of Peter (a debate I'm profoundly uninterested in engaging in), what is striking in this passage is that the possession of these keys puts Peter into the position of steward in the earliest Church in that he, like Eliakim, enjoys a position of trust which controls the access to the King. Peter never completely loses either in the biblical record even if he does some pretty bone-headed or outright cowardly things, especially in the events surrounding Jesus' death. Eve in our popular imagination, Peter is pictured as the first person we see after we die and reach the 'Pearly Gates'? And, guess who has the key to those gates?
Still, we're not there yet, are we? Peter, for all his faith and zeal, is not God nor did he ever pretend to be. Peter could be wrong even after Jesus' resurrection placed him at the head of the early community of believers. Indeed, immediately after being raised up to being the rock on which the Church would be built (Matthew, 17,18), Peter shows how little he understands Jesus' mission by trying to rebuke Jesus when He said that he would have to suffer, die and be raised on the third day in order to complete his mission (Matthew, 17, 21-22). Jesus, then, compares him to Satan, calls him a stumbling block and tells him that he is setting his mind on human standards, not divine ones (Matthew, 17, 23). I think what we are meant to take away from these two exchanges is something essential about the nature of a steward. Ultimately, while the steward has considerable power in the house of the king, he is not the king. Ours is not the final authority in this world, so we have no right to make judgements here and now about our fellow humans or to close the door to God's grace. The steward's job is to serve to the king, not himself or what he wants to see.
However, the crucial evocation of this image of the key of David occurs in Revelation 3.7 in the address to the church in Philadelphia, where John writes:
7 These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:
8 ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Here the key is directly linked to Jesus, who promises the embattled church of Philadelphia that their enemies will acknowledge their status as loved by God. Again, I think what is implied here is that the key of David opens the door to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God and that, ultimately, when that kingdom comes (as it is predicted in Revelation itself), the entry to the kingdom, ultimately, is controlled by Jesus himself. Here we see Jesus' advocacy for the weak, but faithful church of Philadelphia which goes a long way to suggest Jesus' own bias towards the marginalized, but passionately faithful. This is in contrast to our own Western church which is rather uncomfortably similar to the Church of Laodicea, rich, but lukewarm (Revelation 3,14-22). Like the Laodiceans, wee try to use our power and influence as indicators of how holy we are, ignoring what the Gospel calls us to do- help the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the marginalized.
Ultimately, I think that it is this image of the key of David found in Revelation that this antiphon echoes. The door which this key opens us is the one that opens the door to life, the Kingdom of God. In many ways, the defining element of the kingdom of this world is that its end is that of death, not life. Of course, we can fool ourselves into ignoring that reality for a time through any number of delusions or fantasies. We can pursue science to seek an elusive goal of human-made (and, thus, human controlled) immortality. We can entertain ourselves in any number of different ways to ignore our mortality. We can use every form of pleasure to mask our anxiety about the future. But, eventually, we all die. As grim as it is, we already know our future.
Yet, as Christians, we know that this power that death has over us is not forever nor is it the most powerful force in our lives. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, broke the power that death has over us and, even if death still holds sway over the world today, we know that Jesus will be back to overthrow that power completely and that we will participate in it through his power to resurrect us. In this sense, the Key of David is not really the key to the palace granted Eliakim, son of Helkiah, nor is it really the keys granted to Peter, but rather they are the keys forged by Jesus in his death and battle with sin and death. The Key of David is the resurrection and the doors it opens is to the return of the Kingdom of God.
Veni, Clavis Davidica, regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum, et claude vias inferum.
O Come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav'nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.