“O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path of misery.”
In many adventure stories and great epics, there comes a telling moment when a door or a lock must be opened or all will be lost. Such a moment takes place in J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the others come to the The Doors of Durin. Here the key that opens the door is a spoken word, Mellon: the Elvish word for “friend.” In other stories, what the sojourners need to complete their journey is an actual key that when inserted, fits the lock, turns the tumblers, and the mysterious door or lock is opened.
This is akin to the idea that lies behind the fifth verse in the ancient Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This well-loved hymn is based upon the O Antiphons; which are seven Latin prayers that the early church composed to prepare the faithful for Christmas. Each of these prayers takes up one of the mysterious titles the Church found in the Old Testament and attributed to Jesus the Messiah. These names are rooted in prophetic passages mostly from The Book of Isaiah. The verse quoted above regarding the Key of David is illustrative of this tradition. It draws from two separate passages that reveal great human need and deep longing:
“I will place on his shoulder the key to the House of David: he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut and no one shall open.” (Isaiah 22:22)
“to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:7)
Many people all around us today live in prisons of despair and gloom. The doors of life have shut them out from opportunities and dreams or shut them in to lives of misery and hopelessness. The Anglican priest and poet, Malcom Guite, has suggested that the mysterious titles of the Advent Antiphons may be an ideal way for us to open conversations with the seeker or agnostic. Such designations as our “Wisdom from on high,” “Light or Dayspring,” “Desire of Nations,” “Root of Jesse,” or this one I’ve chosen here, the “Key of David”—any of these may allow honest exchange with the secularist when our speaking too soon the name of Christ might only alienate. They might acknowledge they need wisdom to order their lives and show them the path of knowledge; or a light or dayspring to disperse gloomy clouds of depression or dark shadows of death; or perhaps they even yearn for the desire of nations and races to live in peace. Let us take the one I have noted above, the Key of David. Many people are looking for the key to success; or, perhaps, a key to live a happy life. Others need something or someone to unlock the addictive patterns of behavior that trouble them. To set them free from the prison of their past. To deliver them from bitterness, blame, guilt, or shame. To help them forgive and be forgiven—or to help in “the thousands natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” When the self-help projects and resolutions, or even their religious striving has failed or left them empty, what then? Time to remember the probing question Martin Luther posed for every preacher’s sermon—“Does he know anything about Sin and Death, the Devil or Judgement?”
Malcom Guite observes in his Advent-Christmas book, Waiting on the Word, that the sonnet he wrote for this Antiphon was addressing his own experience of depression:
“Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key”
Therein is the great message of Christmas that both the struggling secularist and the struggling Christian needs to hear—“every lock must answer to a key.” Even if the locked door or the chain that holds the prisoner in some dungeon would wish to resist, when the right word is spoken or the true key fits and the tumblers turn, the locked door must open. The one born in Bethlehem and lying in a manger, who shall bear the curse upon the cross, is the Key of David that unlocks every door of bondage. As St. Paul summarizes in the Letter to the Galatians, God not only unlocks, he swings the door wide open for the Spirit’s transforming freedom:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father! So in Christ you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.” Galatians 4:4-7
In the story of each of our lives, there will come a telling moment, maybe even many, when a door or lock must be opened or the path will be thwarted and all will be lost. We shall then need to trust in the Key of David, even Jesus Christ, who unlocks the door to God’s provisions and mercy and shuts the door on darkness and misery.
O Come, O key of David, Come. You open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open.
I still remember an Advent Sunday 25 years ago at St. Stephen’s, McKeesport, Pa. I noticed Bernie out of my peripheral vision as the acolytes, choir, chalice bearers and clergy processed up the side aisle and then down the center aisle to the chancel steps. As acolytes, choir and the clergy took their places I stood at the Rector’s Prayer Desk. Bernie was standing, hymnal-in-hand, just a few pews back on the lectern side of the church where he and his wife Joan usually sat. As we sang verse five, “O come, thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home;” I glanced over and saw Bernie collapse, and slump abruptly in the pew. As the singing continued, his wife assisted him unobtrusively out of the sanctuary, and accompanied him to the hospital, where he died that evening from cardiac arrest. Joan and Bernie were more than parishioners they were also friends. So in the midst of grief and loss at Christmastide, we took solace in this, that Bernie knew this Key of David, as did his wife, Joan. They knew the One who delivers us from sin and death, and the fear of judgement—the Key that unlocks the door and opens wide our heavenly home. This is but one of the many great promises of the Christ Child who was, and is, and shall be. He is the Key to which every lock must answer and every door swing wide! Our Emmanuel—God with us, O Come let us Adore Him, Alleluia!
The Right Reverend Mark Joseph Lawrence