O Clavis David and Our Need of Freedom 2016

Yesterday was a dark day. To the now customary tally of deaths in Syria, Yemen and sub-saharan Africa we had to make additions nearer home. The murder of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, sent shivers down the spine. Might it have the same dreadful consequences as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914? Then came news of people mown down in a Berlin Christmas market — possibly a terrorist attack, possibly an accident, but a hideous irruption of death into a scene of merry-making here in Europe. The darkness within, the interior prison we create for ourselves, can lead to dark deeds, we know, but we have a habit of positing them outside. They are something other people do, not us. We can do the same with salvation. Other people need a Saviour, not us — or at least, only in a general way. Today’s O antiphon knocks that sort of nonsense on the head. It is, so to say, close up and personal, less about ‘us’ than it is about ‘me’:

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.

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. We soon realise how limited our physical freedom actually is. 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, not our uncontrolled appetites, for the fact that we are fat; we cannot do anything about it, can we? We inherited our moody disposition; too bad that you must suffer the consequences. The prisons we make for ourselves can be comfortable and allow us to avoid confronting that which is unpleasant or challenging.

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 daghter 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. Darkness is scattered by the coming of light; sin will be conquered on Calvary. We have hope and know that we shall be set free — and that is the point: we shall be set free, we cannot free ourselves.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5

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Set Free: O Clavis David 2015

Today’s antiphon gets personal. We are no longer praying about ‘us’ but about ‘me’. I am the one fettered by sin, sitting in darkness. It is I who need a Saviour:

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.

Sometimes we avoid confronting the reality of sin in our own lives by talking in comforting abstractions or generalisations. Thus, ‘human sin’  situates our own tiny (sic) contribution to the world’s darkness in something huge, stretching from the dawn of time to the edge of eternity. Alternatively, we posit sin outside ourselves, focusing on ‘those [others, understood] who are bound by habits of sin’. ‘It touches us not; our withers are unwrung,’ we say, a little nervously. How hideously mistaken we are!

The plain fact is that there is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation, no escaping confrontation with evil, both within and without. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The prison we have made for ourselves may have be familiar, but it isn’t where we really want to be. God alone can set us free from everything that binds us or casts a shadow over our lives. He alone can lighten our darkness. At Christmas we shall celebrate the immensity of love which willed to take flesh, suffer and die to restore the fullness of life and liberty to . . . not just us, but me. That thought makes me tremble, as I hope it does you.

Note: today’s O antiphon, text and music (Flash needed) is available with scripture references here, http://bit.ly/1roZnkA

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Our Need of Freedom

Today we ask the Key of David to come and free us from darkness and the shadow of death. Shortly before we sing that antiphon, I shall have given the traditional monastic talk called the Missus Est on the words ‘an angel was sent from God’. The two things come together beautifully, because I think Mary was the most supremely free person who has ever lived. It was given to her either to accept or reject motherhood of God. St Bernard pictures the whole world kneeling before her at the angel’s coming, waiting for the answer she will give: ‘Give the word, Mary, which will give us the Word.’ It was indeed a moment of unequalled faith when Mary embraced the divine Word in her heart and spoke the human word that would set us free: ‘Let it be done to me as you have said.’ The Greek uses the optative, which makes our rather passive English phrase look weak and inadequate. Mary willed her conception, was eager to do God’s bidding, co-operated gladly.

In these last few days of Advent, when the birth of Christ seems very close, let’s spend a few moments thinking about what we owe that young Jewish girl. She let go all her dreams in obedience to the word of God, accepted a vocation that would ask more of her than she could ever have imagined. So it may be with us. Our oblate Pauline quotes these lines of the poet Czeslaw Milosz

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible,
and only late do we discover how obedient we were.

They are worth pondering in the light of our own vocation. We may think we have lived all our lives circumscribed by the bonds of duty only to realise that, in fact, we have been, like Mary, supremely free, blessed beyond measure.

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O Clavis David: liberation theology

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.

I suggest we read Isaiah 22.22 and Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock . . .’ as we listen to the antiphon:

 

I had hoped to write something fresh and new for today, but my mind is taken up with the chapter talk I’ll be giving this afternoon, the Missus Est. The story of the Annunciation reveals layer upon layer of meaning and every year I find myself marvelling at some new facet, which is not really ‘new’ at all but something I had been blind to previously. I suspect we all feel like that. This is a day for doing theology on our knees.

So, I’d like to repeat something I’ve said before. Read it in the context of our current preoccupation with what is happening in North Korea and elsewhere. The key image is telling. Don’t we all feel powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which we have no control? Don’t we need some sort of key to understand them? If we feel entrapped, don’t we need some sort of key to set us free? O Clavis David is liberation theology for today.

Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.

Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.

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