We’re all prisoners, every damn one of us. The more free we declare ourselves to be, the more restraints we chafe at and goads we prick against, the tighter we’re bound. You’re not the boss of me! we shout—at the Church, the government, each other, God—but inside, we know better. All our running and rebelling and freak-flag waving and commitment phobia is just distraction from the shadows the bars cast over our lonely lives.
Guess what? That’s GOOD news. Because it’s only when we acknowledge our imprisonment with open eyes that we can truly be freed, and know the thrill of hope that accompanies the sound of the key in the door. It’s only when we recognize that we are truly free of the fears that falsely imprison us that we can rejoice at the sound of the key that locks them away forever.
When we chant tonight’s O Antiphon, we call on the Messiah as the true liberator, the one who unlocks the prison we’re in and slams the door on the shadow of death we’ve been living under.
For December 20:
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; 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.
The reference is from Isaiah 22:22 and 42:7. In art, the Messiah’s role as Key of David is best depicted in the icon known as The Harrowing of Hell, in which Jesus is shown freeing the souls of our ancestors in faith from the prison of waiting where they’d languished since Adam’s Fall. It’s this notion that lies behind the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into hell.” Harrowing, in this case, means breaking up the dry, barren soil to prepare for planting. Christ’s saving death busts the sod of our locked up hearts, to plant the seeds of incomparable hope.
Another image that speaks to today’s Antiphon, for me, comes from the traditional Tarot. The Eight of Swords depicts a blindfolded, loosely bound woman encircled by swords, their tips planted in the ground so they resemble prison bars. Nothing better describes our blindness to the true source of freedom. We believe we are imprisoned by the circumstances of our sin or the constraints of unfair authority. Yet, like the woman, if we were to shake off the blindfold we’d see how easily we could slip between the swords, how lightly we are bound. We would know that each of the swords is in fact a cross, a signpost to the freedom of God’s reign.
But enough poetic musing. Nobody I know speaks better to the paradox of freedom in Christ than G-Dog, Father Gregory Boyle, SJ. In his thought for the day to the folks at Homeboy Industries this morning, he talked movingly and directly about the need for all of us—jailed homeboys and homegirls that we are—to listen for the sound of the Key of David, to recognize that when we are being called out of darkness and the shadow of death it is not just an early reprieve, but Incarnation. It is “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,” and we’d damn well better settle for nothing less.
O Key of David, help us recognize our true imprisonment and see our true freedom.
Unlock all in us that prevents us from knowing the thrill of hope, the love of God in its astonishing fullness.
And let flow your harrowing grace on all who languish in jails and all who minister to them, from here to Guantanamo to death rows around the world.
O Key of David, come!