O key of David and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open and none can shut; you shut and none can open.
Come and free the captors from prison and break down the wall of death.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
You can listen to this antiphon, sung in its original Latin form, here.
Keys, like modern passwords, are symbols of power, control and separation. For good or ill.
In years gone by, 21st birthday cakes were often decorated by a replica silver key, the idea being that on reaching the formal age of majority, you were deemed old and responsible enough to have charge of your own door key. These days, when many children, a decade younger, are responsible for their own door keys, that seems rather old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy.
In a wider sense, the modern cult of independence and an increasing lack of respect for any source of authority can make the idea of control resting in anyone’s hands, other than our own, seem oppressive and alien.
For Christians, that is a particular challenge because at the core of Christianity is the belief that God is in charge, not us. That doesn’t take away our free-will or our ability to exercise a degree of power but it does change the nature of our responsibility. It means that if we foul up, we must face the consequences, but the cosmos will not fall apart. It means that if we choose to work with God, rather than against him, we are part of a much bigger and more powerful programme of social and political change than we could ever be on our own. It means that we know our place as human beings, wonderfully made in the image of the living God, capable of mirroring back to him some of his glory and beauty, but, at the end of the day, we are just that – human beings, not God.
While that can initially seem limiting, even demeaning, in this day and age, where the human ego is so often king, it is also freeing. We are allowed to be human. We do not have to spend our whole lives pretending we are infallible, or living under the shadow of the artificial illusion that we are the ones that always call the shots.
The ancient Greeks knew exactly how oppressive that illusion can be. Initially, seemingly attractive but, in the end, imprisoning and crippling of our humanity.
Think about the Greek myth of King Midas, for example, who, when granted a wish by the god Dionysius, asks for everything he touches to be turned to gold. His wish is granted and everything the king touches does indeed turn to gold. To begin with, it’s marvellous – the stones Midas walks on, the furniture in his house, the leaves and flowers in his garden, all instantly become inestimably valuable works of golden art and Midas is like a child in a (golden!) sweetshop. But delight and wonderment are rapidly displaced as soon as Midas sits down to a meal. He’s hungry but the soft, new-baked bread he picks up to eat, turns to inedible, tooth-cracking, gold rock, before he can take a bite. He’s thirsty but the fine, translucent red wine in his goblet becomes a solid golden block that is impossible to sip or swallow, as soon as his lips touch the liquid. Delight very quickly turns to abject misery and Midas pleads to have his foolish wish reversed. Dionysius has mercy on him and tells him to go and wash in the river Pactolus where, with very considerable relief, Midas rids himself of the tormenting, golden touch.
While the story is amusing and we instinctively laugh at its absurdity, it has a very serious underlying thread about the pitfalls of humanity trying to step outside its remit and control the world.
Something to read: Revelation 1:17-18
Something to wonder about: Do you seek to control events beyond your remit? How does it feel to hand over control to others? What might God be wanting to teach you in situations in which you have felt powerful and in situations where you have felt powerless?
Something to take it further: Put aside at least half an hour to have a conversation with someone, (on any topic), where you rein back any desire to dominate the conversation and give free rein to all your powers of attentive listening. Real, attentive listening is quite a costly thing – it asks us to be sensitive to what is not being said as well as to what is; it invites us to put ourselves at another’s disposal; it may be a good deal more boring and tedious than we find telling our own story. It is also one of the most priceless gifts we can give another human being, at Christmas or any time.