Saturday, December 19, 2015

O Key of David

O Key of David and Sceptre of the house of Israel, Who dost open and no man doth shut, Who dost shut and no man doth open, come and bring forth from his prisonhouse the captive that sitteth in darkness and in the shadow of death.

He would turn up for the grand occasions in the Chapel when I was a student at Duke.  He was an old man, very distinguished with a craggy face, an emeritus professor of chemistry.  His doctoral robe was Harvard Crimson, and he wore a velvet cap.  And he carried an enormous jeweled staff, with a wide silver head, the mace of the University.  His title was the University Marshall, and that staff represented, I think, the teaching authority.  He bore on behalf of the faculty, who had chosen them to represent him.  When he carried it in on Matriculation Ceremony, or on Founders’ Day or for Baccalaureate, and laid it upon the Altar, it announced to all of us that the university could now get about its business, that the teachers would teach, that students could learn.  He walked very slowly, because he knew that everyone had to wait for him.  His mace was the key that opened the proceedings of a great university.

Of the images evoked in the Advent antiphons, this last one we will consider today, the key of David, is probably the most obscure.  I certainly had to remind myself of the odd corner of Isaiah’s prophecy from which it is taken.[1]  And you get a better picture of it by imagining that university marshal with his silver mace than any little piece of steel you might have in your pocket or handbag this afternoon.  First, it was something that was carried on a shoulder—far too big to fit in a pocket.  Probably it was designed to secure the complicated series of bolts and gates that needed to be fixed each night in those dangerous days.  And it may well have been, by Isaiah’s time a rather fancy and bejeweled implement.  Because, like the mace it was a symbol of authority.

It was given to the chief steward, the one who had authority to manage the royal household: think Carson the butler from Downton Abbey.  He chose the staff, he purchased what was needed, he presided with dignity at grand occasions, and the full responsibility for the hospitality and the splendor of the king’s palace rested on his shoulders.  The steward in Isaiah’s time, Shebna, had failed, and the key with it attendant power was given to Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, with the promise, that at least for a time, he would prove reliable and trustworthy, “fastened like a peg in a sure place.”  He would perform his duties with finality, and the quality of his work would be lasting, “shutting and no man opening,” and “opening, and no man shutting.” 

The chief steward also was the one, above all, who gave access to the king.  Regicide was a constant challenge in most ancient societies, and many palaces were designed a bit like the labyrinth—confusing passageways, hidden doors, bolted gates.  The steward knew his way around the palace, and only his key could open every door.  You needed him to guide you if you wanted to make your way to the king’s presence. 

The antiphon begins with that image of the royal steward, but then it shifts things, and talks instead about prisoners, in the words of the Psalmist, “such as sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, being fast bound in misery and iron.”  It’s not a courtier who needs the steward to gain access to the king, it’s the man in the dungeon who needs to be loosed from his shackles.  But the true steward, the master of the hall, his key can open those doors as well.

It is one of the most recurring images, the prisoner in darkness, longing for freedom and light.  Joseph was a prisoner, and Jeremiah the prophet.  Peter and John were jailed several times during their early ministry in Jerusalem, and Paul wrote most of His letters from a prison cell.  But more still is meant by this.  The prison is an image of sin, and the devil is the one who has bound us, the strong man who holds us captive.  We hope for freedom, but it is no simple matter to break the chains of long habit and early formation in vice.  We cannot tame our passions by good intentions alone, our besetting sins return again and again.  Our resolve simply isn’t strong enough to cut through the iron bars.  We must be set free by another.  A prayer from the English Prayer Book puts it this way: “though we be tied and bound with the chain of our sins, yet let the pitifulness of thy great mercy loose us.”

And Christ is the one who has come to set the prisoner free.  It was part of that great agenda He announced in Nazareth at the very beginning of His ministry.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim liberty to the captive.”[2]  As He proclaimed the good news, He loosed people from devastating physical conditions, and also declared the forgiveness of sins.  And in His death and resurrection, at the great feast of Passover, the day of liberation, He broke the power of sin forever.  And when He ascended to glory, He threw wide the gates, so that we too might follow after him.  As the ancient Te Deum has it, “when thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.”[3]

“I am the living One,” He announced to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, “I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”[4]  You may know the orthodox ikon of the resurrection.  It’s not like those Renaissance pictures where Christ steps meekly out from His grave.  Instead, it shows him, as He completes what the author of I Peter describes as his “preaching to the souls in prison.”[5]  He is lifting Adam and Eve out of their dark tombs and into the light.  At His feet are those keys He has come to claim, and the devil lies bound beneath him in the darkness.

Life in Him begins with repentance.  We turn to Him confessing our sins, and then we find the power of His great mercy.  He steps into our dark prison, breaks everything that holds us, and leads us out, like those ancient apostles, like Adam and Eve, to a new life.  The words of Wesley’s hymn are especially powerful. 
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.[6]

That work, the work of setting people free by confession and forgiveness.  He  himself called it the power of the keys.  And it is at the heart of the Church’s ministry.  Whether we come to him in private or in the Church’s common worship, whenever we confess our sins sincerely, we receive, through the ministry of His priests, the gift of absolution.  Absolution, it means “breaking the bond”—taking off the chains, throwing open the door.

But He is also, like Isaiah’s Eliakim the chief steward, the One who leads the way for us, the way back to the Father’s house.  When He comes for us, He will take us by the hand, and bring us into His Presence, our home forever.  In that place, as Saint John saw in His vision, there are twelve gates, each of a single pearl, and every one of them is open forever.[7]

[1] Is. 22:22-23.
[2] Lk. 4:18.
[3] Canticle 7, Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 53.
[4] Rev. 1:18.
[5] I Pet. 3:19.
[6] “And Can it Be?”  United Methodist Hymnal, Hymn 363, vs. 4.
[7] Rev. 21:21-23.

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