In the final days of Advent, the church’s daily evening prayer includes a short verse, or antiphon, that highlights one of the scriptural names for the messiah. Each day’s text begins with “O” followed the designated title, traditionally sung in Latin. From today through Dec. 23, I’ll post a reflection on the day’s O Antiphon, revised and updated from the series I posted in 2010. More background information on the O Antiphons is found below each day’s post.
Antiphon of the Day: 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 captive people into freedom.
A key as a symbol of authority is familiar to us from the New Testament. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom and states that whatever he holds bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever Peter looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. This passage harkens back to one in Isaiah in which a trusted servant is given the keys to the house of David. What he opens, no one will shut; what he shuts, no one will open. From these references, the key has become a symbol of priestly ordination. So too in ordinary life, possession of keys connotes responsibility. The second oldest of a large family, my husband was given a master key for the house when he became old enough to stay with his younger siblings. The privilege of driving a car is signified not only by the license but also use of keys. Although increasingly today a card to swipe replaces an actual key, the symbolism still applies. (Photo by Richard-G., via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license)
The key of David image naturally follows from the root of Jesse, since David was Jesse’s youngest son who became a great king. Returning to Chapter 11 of Isaiah, we find further elaboration on the qualities of the messiah – the root of Jesse that grew to become the House of David from which the messiah comes. The messiah will possess what we now call the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord. But that’s only six gifts, and there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Rather than simply being listed like the others, the gift of “right judgment” is described at greater length. Isaiah tells us that the messiah’s judgment will be based on justice for the poor and in favor of the land’s afflicted, not on appearances or hearsay. The wicked and ruthless will be punished by the messiah’s judgments. A state of peace and harmony in which the wolf is the guest of the lamb and a baby plays by the cobra’s den also results from this exercise of authority. The key of David represents authority grounded in love and compassion. As the fiscal cliff looms, we pray that our leaders would be gifted with these qualities.
Prayer: O key of David, be to us a sign of justice for all and concern for the least. Open the closed places in our hearts to the needs of the poor and afflicted.
About the O Antiphons
Although the exact origin of the O Antiphons is unknown, they seem to have been in use for more than 1,000 years. Most of us are more familiar with singing all these names for Jesus in the complete verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The church’s daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office, has mostly been observed by religious communities, especially today in monasteries. It’s the church’s way of marking the holiness of each part of the day. Historically, as many as eight “hours” were celebrated during a 24-hour period, but Vatican II emphasized morning and evening prayer for all, not just vowed religious. The format includes psalms, antiphons, scripture readings, and specific prayers like the Our Father and Magnificat. At vespers from Dec. 17-23, in early evening, the O Antiphon is recited or sung before the Magnificat.