O Clavis David | 20 December 2020

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

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, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

With today’s antiphon we move from the general to the particular, from the plural to the singular. We can hide the truth no longer. It is we as individuals who plead for salvation, we who are sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, locked up in prisons we have created for ourselves or to which we have been condemned by others. Then there are the prisons in which we incarcerate other people with our harsh judgements and refusal to forgive. They too contain souls Christ came to save, but that thought can make us uneasy. Salvation for us, yes; but for them? All at once we begin to see that we have been guilty (ever so slightly and quite unintentionally) of usurping the place of God, deciding who is or is not worthy of salvation. It can be a shock to realise that God may see things differently, may be much more generous and merciful than we would like him to be in respect of those others; and because we desire mercy and forgiveness for ourselves, we are forced to think anew. 

Sometimes world events have the effect of concentrating our minds. As the COVID-19 pandemic moves into a new phase and leads governments throughout the world to impose ever more severe restrictions, the reality of the darkness we face strikes home. At its best, that awareness can lead to greater neighbourliness and a desire to ease the burden for others, but it can also lead to greater selfishness, so that the darkness becomes blacker still, the prison a dungeon. This morning, I think we face a stark choice. Will we allow the Key of David to free us or not?

The image of the key is a compelling one. To be locked up, even for a short time, with no means of escape other than that provided by the keyholder is an unnerving experience. (I was once forgotten by the archivist at Santiago de Compostela and spent several hours locked up in the muniment room while he went off for a leisurely lunch and siesta. To be locked up for life, how dreadful that must be!) In such circumstances, we soon realise how limited our physical freedom actually is, how dependent we are on others. But we have a way of turning this round and pleading our lack of freedom as an excuse for all the shortcomings we see in our lives. We blame our genes or circumstances over which we have no control for everything we regard as wrong or unsatisfactory. In effect, we construct the prisons we rail against out of fear or disappointment rather than anything more substantive. Only grace enables us to see that the prisons we make for ourselves can be comfortable and allow us to avoid confronting that which is unpleasant or challenging.

Darkness cannot be permitted to have the last word. It is no accident that on the day we sing O Clavis David we also read the gospel of the Annunciation and hear again how a young Jewish girl, a daughter of David’s royal line, consented to be the Mother of God and in so doing set us free from all that had bound us hitherto. Jesus is the Key but Mary’s flesh provides the lock and wards, so to say, that enable the key to work. Her faith, her generosity affect us all. St Bernard pictures the whole world on its knees before Mary, begging her to give the word that would give us the Word. It was a moment of unequalled faith. Had she refused, had she chosen to stay with the familiar, safe and predictable, our lives would have been very different. Her courage is a reminder that we co-operate with grace; we are never forced. We are led from prison, we are given freedom. How we use it is up to us.

As scripture to ponder, I suggest in addition to today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 22.22; Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.