Tonight’s O Antiphon is “O Clavis David,” which means “O Key of David.” It’s a reference to Isaiah 22:19-23, and the rise and fall of a man named Eliakim. In this passage, God removes Shebna from his position of power as Master of the Palace, replacing him with Eliakim:
Peter Paul Reubens, St. Peter (1612)I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eli’akim the son of Hili’ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.”
What an amazing prophesy! There are two images here: the Key of David, which refers to authority over the House of Israel, and the Peg, which refers to Eliakim’s longevity. And it’s to a man named Eliakim, whose very name means “God will raise up.” How fitting, right? Well, let’s read the next thing that He prophesies (Isaiah 22:24-25):
And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. In that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a sure place will give way; and it will be cut down and fall, and the burden that was upon it will be cut off, for the LORD has spoken.
Wow. The radical juxtaposition of these two prophesies should leave us a bit unsettled. God is choosing to empower Eliakim, despite knowing that Eliakim will ultimately disappoint Him, and will be set aside. The pressures of the office will eventually prove to be too much for him, and Eliakim’s glory will fade.
This seems pretty bleak. I’m reminded of three things:
- First, of Percy Blythe Shell’s sonnet Ozymandias. The poem tells of a traveler discovering a plaque reading, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings :Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But he finds the plaque within the midst of a colossal wreck. All that’s left of Ozymandias’ empire is ruins.
- Second, of modern politics. We Americans cast our hopes onto the latest politician, only to find them burn out in disgrace, unable to shoulder the burdens of success. We hurry to place a key on the next man’s shoulder, only to watch him crumple from the weight.
- Finally, of The Myth of Sisyphus. Albert Camus, the atheistic French existentialist, declared life to be meaningless. He compared it to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was cursed by the gods to continually push a boulder up a mountain. Yet every time he made it to the top of the hill, the boulder would roll back down, and he’d have to start over. That, to Camus, was life. A constant and meaningless struggle.
As I said, all of this seems intensely dark. God permits men to rise and fall, and we’re left wondering at the meaning. But this apparent meaningless isn’t the final word. Christ is.
Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1370)
When Christ enters the picture, we see the Key of David finally enter into safe hands, of the One who won’t “be cut down and fall,” as Eliakim was. Israel will no longer be left to the whims of the ambitious, but will be governed by the eternal God. And He puts in place an Apostle, St. Peter, giving him the keys (Mt. 16:18-19):
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
So the Keys, the very symbol of authority, were handed to the first pope, Peter. But what makes this so radically different from the time of Eliakim is that instead of prophesying Peter’s downfall, He declares that “the gates of Hades will not overcome.” While Israel was tossed back and forth, the Church is built upon Rock.
And why won’t the Gates of Hell overcome? Because while Christ gives Peter the Keys, He doesn’t lose them Himself. In other words, Jesus doesn’t become any less God because He entrusts Peter with authority. Peter’s not stealing Christ’s power. Christ is working through Peter. We see this from the Book of Revelation, which clearly shows us that Christ hasn’t lost His Authority. In the Book of Revelation, Christ presents Himself this way: as “He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens” (Rev. 3:7), and declares, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev. 1:7) As He promises the Apostles: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). Empires rise and fall, but the Church stays on forever, because Christ is King. This is why participation in the life of the Church is a participation in the eternal Kingdom of God. And it’s one more reason to be thankful for Christmas, the birth of Our King.
The traditional Latin Antiphon is:
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, and Sceptre of the House of Israel,
That openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth,
Come to liberate the prisoner from the prison,
and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.
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.
And the English version used in the Antiphon today:
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.