O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
This antiphon, traditionally sung or said on December 20th, offers hope for all those who find the way barred or doors locked against them. For much of Israel’s history, this was a promise they clung to, as exile and occupation sharpened the longing for deliverance, and for the coming of the promised Messiah. Isaiah had prophesied the Lord’s servant as one who would ‘bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness’ (42.7). As he began his ministry in Nazareth, Jesus read from another passage in Isaiah which he told the astonished listeners was fulfilled in their hearing:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.18-19, quoting Isaiah 61)
This is the one for whom they have been hoping, the one whose coming is good news for the captives and the oppressed. Earlier on in Isaiah, the promise had been made to Eliakim, the chief steward of the house of Israel, that he would be given the ‘key of the house of David’ (22.22). In Revelation, this promise is fulfilled in ‘the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens’ (3.7).
The five short lines of the antiphon layer these dense scriptural allusions, directing them all towards the coming of Christ, whose advent means liberty for those held captive and the promise of light shining into our darkness. For this one who comes as Key of David goes into the prison house of our sin and captivity, into the shadow of death itself, to shatter its power over us. There is no longer any darkness Christ’s light cannot reach, any captivity from which he cannot free us. For he is the Key that opens every lock.
To receive this promise as good news requires the courage to look: to look at the systems and structures that oppress people and deny their dignity and potential. To look at the darker parts of our lives and histories and acknowledge our need of Christ’s light. To recognise where and how we are held captive – by sin or guilt or fear or oppression – and to trust that God’s desire for us is for freedom from all that.
Pray the words of the antiphon yourself. What in you needs unlocking or freeing? Where is the darkness around you that needs Christ’s light, or where you can bear Christ’s light?
Anna Matthews is the Vicar of St Bene’t’s, Cambridge.