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 (Christian Prayer, 127).
As with all of the great “O Antiphons” of Advent, today’s is deeply rich in meaning. In some ways it is very straightforward, but as we pull back its layers, we will find that its instruction touches many facets of Christian life, from the way we pray, to the faith we hold, and to the way we live.
Like the other six, this “O Antiphon” is Scripturally rooted in a passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In Chapter 23, God pronounces judgment on the master of the palace, Shebna, through the Prophet (Isaiah 22:15). In those days, the office of the Master of the Palace functioned something like a Prime Minister. The Master of the Palace is essentially given power over the kingdom as deputy, making decisions in the name of the King. In short, the Master of the Palace held great power in the Kingdom. As always, with great power comes great responsibility and likewise the potential for the abuse of that power. As the right hand of the King in administration, the Master of the Palace would have assisted the King in accomplishing his mission. That the Master of the Palace had such power was signified by keys, “the key of the House of David” (Isaiah 22:22).
Time and again throughout Scripture, that mission is likened to that of a shepherd. When David, who spent his early years as a shepherd (1 Samuel 17:34-37) is first appointed King, the people remind him that the Lord has entrusted him with this work:
Look! We are your bone and your flesh. In the days past, when Saul was still our king, you were the one who led Israel out in all its battles and brought it back. And the Lord said to you: You shall shepherd my people Israel; you shall be ruler over Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-2).
This is a snapshot of how the ideal King of Israel is to live. He is to act like a shepherd, leading the sheep, leading them out and back home, leading them out into battle, defending them there and bringing them back to safety. All this is implied by the passage above. Two further elements are necessary to round out this portrait of the ideal King. First, it is important that we recall why David was chosen to shepherd God’s people Israel. David, we are told by Sacred Scripture, was a man “after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). And second, notice how the people appeal to David here. They say to him: “Look! We are your bone and flesh” (2 Samuel 5:1). David, was a man of the people, he was one of them and they recognized it. But he was a man of the people because he was a man “after God’s own heart.” David, as the ideal King of Israel, was also the ideal shepherd of Israel, precisely because he lived the twofold command to love God and neighbor as self, the two commands that bookend the Law in Leviticus (Leviticus 19:2-4 & 18). In short, David was a man for others, a man who lived as self-gift in imitation of God (Leviticus 19:2), and only by living in this manner could he shepherd God’s people rightly.
In contrast, those who took this office of Kingly Shepherd and did not live in such a way were denounced by the prophets. For example, we find this passage in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the flock of my pasture—oracle of the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds (Jeremiah 23:1-2).
It only follows that if the King was to live in such a manner, the Master of the Palace must likewise live, if he is to assist the King in carrying out his mission and rule in his stead. In the passage from Isaiah that today’s “O Antiphon” is rooted in, we find that Master of the Palace, Shebna, has failed to live out his office faithfully. Instead, he has become thoroughly self-interested, obsessed with the trappings of his office (Isaiah 22:18), and an accompanying inflated view of self, hewing a magnificent tomb for himself in a rock “on high” (Isaiah 22:16). In short, Shebna is consumed by pride. Accordingly, the keys of the House of David, Isaiah tells him, will be taken from him and given to another, Hilkiah. And, as Master of the Palace, what Hilkiah “opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Isaiah 22:22).
What must be kept in mind here when we turn to apply it to our own situation, is that while the keys of the Kingdom are entrusted to the Master of the Palace, they do not belong to him. Instead, they belong to the King, the successor to the throne of David, who for his own part, has been entrusted with the care of God’s people on God’s behalf.
Keeping all that has been said in mind, we recall that in our December 17th reflection, the ideal Messiah is also described as the ideal King of Israel, clothed in the very life of the Love of God, the Holy Spirit and displaying His gifts (Isaiah 11:2-3). Over the course of history, those entrusted to shepherd God’s People Israel, failed time and time again. Such that it became apparent that the only Good Shepherd of Israel could be none other than God Himself. Thus, after chastising the false shepherds of Israel once again through the Prophet Ezekiel for being self-interested and self-centered by saying:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! God adds that in the days to come He will take matters in His own hands: “I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest—oracle of the Lord God. The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal: but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd them in judgment (Ezekiel 34:15-16).
All of this Christ implies when He tells us that He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18). No doubt, words that would have struck a chord with His listeners, who would have immediately recalled Ezekiel’s prophecy to mind. But, Christ, the humble poor man, did not look divine, he looked, dare we say, too human. He looked like one of the people, such that when He acted and spoke like the true Possessor of the Keys of the Kingdom, people questioned him:
“Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him (Matthew 13:54-57).
The true Shepherd arrives Who alone can shepherd His people rightly, and His people take offense at Him. Why? Because He’s too much like them, He smells too much like the sheep, and so they mistake the Shepherd for the sheep. The simple fact is that the Good Shepherd is subject to the same misunderstanding today. Jesus, in Kantian fashion, is often seen as a mere ethical teacher and example. But God? The person sitting next to you in the pew is just as likely not to believe it as to believe it, according to a 2020 study by Legonier Ministries. The human heart, so self-centered, so self-interested, so used to bad leadership which can do nothing save exemplify the vices of pride, avarice, greed, and lust, that when Virtue appears in the flesh and lives a life of self-sacrificing love in pure humility, we not only do not recognize it, we take offense at it. And why? Because he is a mere mortal, I can take him or leave him, and who does he think he is, telling me how to live my life, interrupting my ongoing self-fulfillment project?
So hard is the human heart that the only thing that could possibly move it to love is a love that “reaches to the end” (John 13:1), for it is only such Love that has the ability to re-create what had been destroyed, to burst the gates of sin and death that held, and, indeed, hold us captive whenever we choose ourselves over Him. Only such Love, in other words, can be the Key to unlock the chains of sin that bind us, and burst open the gates of death. Our Lord Himself is this Key, the very embodiment, as we have seen, of the Kingdom of God and the Law of Love by which He governs that Kingdom. He reveals Himself as such beginning on Good Friday, the instrument of torture upon which He loved to the end (John 13:1) serving both as the throne of His Kingdom of Love and the Key that would unlock the gates of hell. St. Augustine puts it this way:
What a tremendous mystery. What an inexpressibly powerful sign. The transgressors of the law crucified the author of the law, and the hidden meanings of the law were laid bare. Wasn’t that cross a key? It held the Lord fast, and released things that had been locked up (Sermon 125A.3).
The power of Divine Love transformed an instrument of hatred and ignorance into the very instrument by which He would set His people free. From there they would take His precious body and lay it in a tomb. A tomb hewn in the rock as that of Shebna, the self-centered Master of the Palace erected, yet not a tomb “on high,” nor even a tomb of His own, but one borrowed (Matthew 27:60), for He would not need it long. And so, from the bowels of the earth “He descended into Hell” as we profess in the Creed. In doing so Our Lord had now gone to the very end of God-forsakenness for the sake of the entire human family from the beginning to the end. And thus it was fitting that the first to be released were the first to be taken captive. He had gone in search of our first parents, as for lost sheep, in the way that only the Good Shepherd would do.
The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory…He took [Adam] by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light. I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise (“Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday,” in Christian Prayer, 1987-1988).
Taking Adam and Eve by the hand, Christ burst the gates of Hell and opened the gates of Heaven. On the third day he rose again, for it is impossible that Life be held by death (Acts 2:24). Thus, by rising He destroyed death, and by rising He restored life. For by the power of His Pasch He merited the grace necessary for the salvation of all peoples. And that we too might pass from death to new life in Him, He opened for us, in the words of St. Nicholas Cabasilas, the gates of His grace, the sacraments.
…the most sacred Mysteries may fittingly be called ‘gates of righteousness,’ for it is God’s supreme loving-kindness and goodness towards mankind, which is the divine virtue and righteousness, which has provided us with these entrances into heaven” (The Life in Christ, 1.6).
To some He has entrusted the keeping of these gates through the sacrament of Holy Orders. Before ascending He entrusted this work first to Peter, the new Master of the Palace, saying: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The future promise was fulfilled when, following his conversion after the threefold denial, Peter showed himself a man after God’s own heart in a threefold manner, saying, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you,” to which Our Lord responded, “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). And, in imitation of the Good King and Shepherd, Peter imitated His Lord’s love, proving himself faithful to his words to Our Lord by giving himself to the end out of love for God and His People as Our Lord had foretold (John 21:18).
Sadly, we find many of our shepherds, up and down the centuries, who rather than smell like the sheep in imitation of the love of Peter and Our Lord (Pope Francis, Homily for Holy Thursday, 28 March 2013), are satisfied to imitate Shebna. To them, make no mistake, the very same warnings once issued to the bad shepherds of Israel apply. Yet, that some are allowed to abuse their office this way is not entirely their own fault. As laity, we, too, bear some responsibility each and every time we turn a blind eye to bad management of the Church, preaching which undermines the Truth by acquiescing to the dictatorship of relativism, and, worst of all, abuse of the least of Our Lord’s.
If we truly love Our Lord we will imitate Him, for Love desires to become that which it loves. Therefore, the laity ought to take the kingly office bestowed upon them at baptism with the utmost seriousness, binding and loosing in the world what the Church binds and looses within her walls. This is not a new call to the laity to extend the work of the Church into the world, it is an ancient call that must be reissued. In the 4th and 5th centuries, St. Augustine of Hippo noticed that his efforts at shepherding God’s People were undermined when the sheep did not live in harmony with the shepherd. Thus, maintaining a careful distinction between his position as ordained minister and the laity’s role in carrying out the work of the Church in the world, Augustine reminded them that they too share in the power to loose and bind given first to Peter:
I make bold to say, we too have these keys. And what am I to say? That it is only we who bind, only we who loose? No, you also bind, you also loose. Anybody who’s bound, you see, is barred from your society; and when he’s barred from your society, he’s bound by you; and when he’s reconciled he’s loosed by you, because you too plead with God for him (Sermon 229N.2).
The same recognition that the ability of the work of the shepherds to be effective is in the hands of the laity is at work in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council when the Council Fathers tell us that Christians bear some responsibility for the disbelief of the world (Gaudium et Spes, 19).
As we await the birth of the Key of David, it is imperative that we ask ourselves two questions. First, have we allowed the Key of David to unlock the chains of sin and vice in our own life, through daily penitential acts and the frequenting of the sacrament of penance? Second, having been set free, do we imitate the love of Christ to the end by being willing to get involved in the chaos of the world, in our homes, our communities, our states and our countries, so that we too might shatter the bonds of sin and death by allowing the life of Christ to live in and through us? Having passed through the gates of grace we must work to assure that all pass through these gates, as our Lord desires nothing less (1 Timothy 2:4). In sum, we must live as a people after God’s own heart, as people set free to live in the freedom of love (Galatians 5:1), and who strive for all people to enjoy that same freedom.
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.