To illustrate the antiphon O Clavis David, I chose Bartolomeo Bermejo’s magnificent painting of the Harrowing of Hell. It depicts the Risen Christ descending into the dreary dungeon of Hades where Adam and Eve, Methuselah, Solomon, and the Queen of Shebah await Him. The Risen Christ descends into the darkness, radiant in the light of his glory. Psalm 106 expresses the mystery of the moment: “Then they cried to the Lord in their need and he rescued them from their distress. He led them forth from darkness and gloom and broke their chains to pieces” (Ps 106:13-14).
O Key of David
and Sceptre of the House of Israel ,
who opens and no one can shut,
who shuts and no one can open (Is 22:22; Apoc 3:7):
Come and bring the prisoners forth from the prison cell,
those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death (Is 42:7; Ps 106:13-14; Lk 1:9).
The Yes to Love
On the Ember Wednesday of Advent we stand in the doorway of the humble dwelling where the Blessed Virgin Mary receives the Angel’s message. We are all ears, all eyes . . . listening, looking, and trying to take in something of the mystery that unfolds before us. The mystery of the Annunciation is, in essence, the Virgin’s utterly simple “Yes” to Love. The Virgin pronounces her “Yes,” and l’amore che move ‘l sol e anche le stelle, the light that moves the stars and even the sun, encloses itself in her womb. We enter the mystery of the Annunciation, not by any effort of the imagination, but by an utterly simple and penetrating act of faith, by the “Yes” to Love.
Love Conceived, Love Crucified, Love Risen
One does not approach the Virgin of the Annunciation without discovering the Mother of Sorrows. The joyful “Yes” to Love conceived beneath the Virgin’s heart flowers into the sorrowful “Yes” to Love crucified, and the glorious “Yes” to Love risen from the tomb. Standing in the doorway of the Holy House of Nazareth, listening and looking, we have only to believe in Love, in the Love to whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37).
Today’s O Antiphon is closely tied to the Annunciation Gospel. “He will be great,” said the Angel Gabriel, “and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of his father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). We lift our voices to Christ, calling him “Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel.”
The Key of the House of David
The antiphon draws its invocation from the twenty-second chapter of Isaias. The Lord says to Shebna, the master of the household of King Hezekiah, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Helkias, and I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda. And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father” (Is 22:20-23).
A Key Borne on the Shoulder|
Eliakim, whose name means, “God has raised up,” is a figure of Christ. Christ is Lord and Master over the household of the Father. On the shoulder of Christ was placed the key of the Cross, the key that opens what no mortal can open, and that closes what no mortal can close. In the image of the great key placed on the shoulder we recognize a figure of the Cross placed on the shoulder of Christ, the key by which heaven is opened and hell vanquished.
Before Thee A Door
The second biblical source of the antiphon’s invocation is in the third chapter of the Apocalypse. “And to the angel of the church of Philadelphia, write: These things saith the Holy One and the true one, he that hath the key of David; he that openeth, and no man shutteth; shutteth, and no man openeth. I know thy works.” (Apoc 3:7). Read on! The following verse is crucial: “Behold, I have given before thee a door opened, which no man can shut: because thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word and hast not denied my name” (Apoc 3:8). The open door set before us is like the door opened before the Virgin Mary by the message of the Angel. It is comforting to hear the Lord say to each of us, “Thou hast a little strength” (Apoc 3:8). Our little strength is no obstacle to the designs of God, “because no word shall be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).
Out of Darkness
The O Antiphons are composed of two parts: the invocation beginning with the word “O,” and the petition beginning with the cry, Veni. The petition of today’s antiphon is derived from the Song of the Servant given in the forty-second chapter of Isaiah. There, the Lord God presents his servant whom he upholds, the Chosen in whom his soul delights(Is 42:3). The Servant is given as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 47:7).
The Orient From on High
The second text related to the petition of the antiphon is a familiar one because we sing it every morning at Lauds in the Benedictus. “Through the bowels of the mercy of our God . . . the Orient from on high hath visited us: to enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:79). The way of peace is the way opened before us by the Cross-bearing Christ. Christ, with the key of the Cross, opens the door before us.
Into the Mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
The way of peace leads to the altar and into the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the actualization of the Kingdom of God here and now. From the altar, the light of the Resurrection penetrates into all that, in our lives, remains shadowy and locked. With the Virgin of the Annunciation, we have only to believe in Love and, believing, say faith’s simple “Yes.” Our “little strength” is of no consequence. We go to the altar of God to be overshadowed by the power of Love. Love will do the rest for “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16 ) and “no word shall be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).