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.
Today’s antiphon reminds me of the bridge to the popular worship song, “Reckless Love:”
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
I love my Jesse tree and candles and Blessed is She Advent wallpaper. But sometimes we use the physical manifestations of our Advent devotion as a facade over the chains shackling our heart. I’m all for cozy candlelit meditations on “holy infant, so tender and mild.” But the unspeakable power and jealous love of the King of Kings is also central to the mystery of the Incarnation. The feast we are about to enter isn’t just the celebration of a birth. It’s the celebration of a prison heist and rescue mission of the greatest proportions.
There’s an interesting contrast within the imagery of the antiphon. Christ’s title is “Key of David.” But rather than ask Him to unlock a door, we beg Him to tear down a wall. By Christ’s Incarnation and bestowal of grace through the Sacraments, He has unlocked the prison in which we were trapped by original sin. But the gift of our free will is still intact. We can still choose to sit in prison. Maybe we’re in a state of grace, congratulating ourselves that we’re not like those tax collectors. But Christ didn’t come just to make sure that with one confession per year, we can slide our way into heaven. He “came so that [we] might have life and have it more abundantly.”1
We are too weak to leave our cells. So we ask the “royal Power of Israel” to break down the prison walls and to flood the shadow of death with His luminous light. We ask Him to do whatever it takes to drag us from captivity and run into His joyful Kingdom.
It’s going to require sacrifice. It’s going to require an intense openness in prayer and the courage to let the Lord bring those wounds into the open so that He can tend to them. The Lord delights in your hand-painted Jesse Tree ornaments2 and faithful recitation of the St. Andrew Christmas novena and organization of the St. Nick’s party for the homeschool group. But He’s asking you to go deeper, to press into the messy beauty that each of these traditions holds. The Jesse Tree tells the story of mankind’s adultery and ingratitude against an infinitely faithful Spouse and Father. The St. Andrew novena is a prayer of desperation before an impoverished God. We give gifts in honor of St. Nicholas because he preserved women from the horror of prostitution.
In these last days of Advent, we are asking the Key of David to unlock the doors in our soul that we are too afraid to enter. We are asking Him to smash and burn the idols to which we offer our love. We are asking Him to come with His power and preserve us from every stain of sin, not just mortal sin. “Do whatever it takes,” we whisper to the Messiah. “Open the enclosure in our hearts so that we can enter into intimate communion with you.”
My life changed when I prayed, “Jesus, I give you permission to wreck my life.” The joy and heartbreak that has flowed from that prayer has been confusing, painful, and unexpected. But it has changed everything. Christmas changes everything. Let Him break down the walls.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
-John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV
1 – John 10:10
2 – Yours, not mine. Heaven knows I’m not the crafty type.