O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.
Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.
Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)
LET US SEE How the world is overthrown. What is the Key of David? It’s a reference to Isaiah 22:22 – which is said of Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, but fulfilled in the Messiah. I’ve been wondering about this “key” though. What is it? Walk everything back to King Saul, David’s immediate predecessor and the first King of Israel. The Israelites had been ruled only by judges – and that only when necessary. The Torah was their governance and it was enforced by everyone (including the priests and Levites) with an appeal to the Judges or Prophets as needed. Then the people decided they wanted a king. The Prophet Samuel said he wouldn’t do it, but God told Samuel to go ahead and do it. The people were not rejecting Samuel’s judgeship – but rather God’s Kingship over them. So Samuel followed God’s command and gave the people King Saul who turned out to be a right putz.
Then came King David whom God described as “A man after my own heart.” God seemed to use Saul to prove a point but then used David (and Solomon) to raise Israel to previously unknown heights. What is the Key of David? How is it fulfilled in Messiah?
While these Antiphons for Advent are based on Scripture, they are not actually scripture – this one verse, sung once a year, pulls from three different places in Isaiah and weaves in some images later used in the Gospels. They are, more than anything, meditations. So they are worth mulling over with that in mind: they are like Dream Images, subject to many readings.
This is 2020 and what has happened has happened, so that’s where my brain is now. This year, for me, has raised the question of governance and how God participates in human actions. So at this point in time, the Key of David seems to be governance of the social order. The Messiah is named here as exactly the ruler of Temporal Order, what we now call mistakenly the “Secular” order. I say mistakenly for there was literally no concept of this “secular” order until the time between the American and the French Revolutions. There was no concept anywhere of “Church and State” prior to that time – even in places that were not Christian. For everywhere, the social order was governed by Authority and that Authority was partially religious.
Ancient Rome had laws and religious taboos had did all cultures until the modern mind broke these apart. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon he was not being “revolutionary” but rather he was committing an act of impiety – which signaled revolution. He was disrupting the divinely-instituted structures of Roman society. Likewise, Jesus was fully aware that his actions of impiety against both the Jewish and Roman structures would be seen as “politcal” as well as “theological”. These are the same things. Christianity teaches that all authority is God’s and he graciously allows men to participate in that. Only we moderns try to divorce Divine and Human Authority – and we fail. American has her own secular religion. We are unable to govern without it.
So, I think the “Key of David” signifies this joint rulership of “Church and State” which were not divided in Jesus’ day nor at any point in history until the latter part of the 18th Century amid the people of the “Enlightenment”.
The King of Israel held a religious function, an eternal as well as temporal one. And so the Key of David, the rulership of both the Sacred and the Secular, falls into the hands of Messiah. From him it passes to his body, the Church. Only modern, enlightened people in our pride imagine that these two things can be ruled separately. Most of the world and all people have known to the contrary for all of human history. And has our delusion done us so much better? Hardly. Our people are uncared for, our economy has run amok, the unrestrained content of our dreams, imaginings, and nightmares pours forth around us with never a thought to “should” only “could”. And when asked why “because it’s there” or “I wanted to” is the only answer possible. Because all other options have been removed from the table.
This is the darkness and the shadow of death in which we live and move and lose our being.
We need someone with the Key of David to close and lock away those things which are unhealthy for us, to open those ways which are good, true, and beautiful. We need someone with the Key of David to come and lead us from the prison house we have made for ourselves with – as the Orthodox/Byzantine prayer says – our “slavery to our own reasoning”.
This is prayer the Church offers here to the Messiah who is coming: rule us, lead us, take us out of our own traps and set us free.
Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
– O Sapientia (11/15)
– O Adonai (11/20)
– O Radix Jesse (11/25)
– O Clavis David (11/30)
– O Oriens (12/5)
– O Rex Gentium (12/10)
– O Emmanuel (12/15)
– O Virgo Virginum (12/20)
This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.