First Thursday December 2023: The Key of David

Welcome to First Thursday.  A full year has passed since I began sharing with you the poems and aphorisms from my book, On Giving My Word.  We are in the season of Advent, the season of expectation.  Themes of Advent are well served by a reprise of Mary, the mother of our Lord, the God bearer, not as a devotion for the Queen of Heaven, but as the human maiden of Nazareth, whose humanity is linked to the humanity of the Christ.  For a long time, I have used a story that I invented which imagines the journey of Mary, heavy with child, to Bethlehem.  It relies on, to be sure, one’s imagination as we have from the Gospel of Luke, alone, two reports, that of an annunciation to Mary in Nazareth and of a birth of a child Bethlehem, which imply that journey of some seventy miles was made late in her pregnancy.  I shaped this journey into seven meditations corresponding to seven days of travel.  Each day has at its center one the seven “O” antiphons which were originally composed as antiphons for the Magnificat sung on the last seven days before Christmas.  Later they were collected and sung as the well-known Advent Carol, “O Come, O Come Emanuel.” Each of the seven verses turns on a name of the Messiah.

          The fourth name is “The Key of David.”  This name in found in the Book of Isaiah, "And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open" (Isaiah 22:22). It also occurs in the Book of Revelation (3:7), where the words of the glorified Christ are addressed to the Angel of the Church of Philadelphia: “These are the word of the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David, who opens, and no one shall shut.  Who shuts and no one will open.”  The key is the symbol of authority, an authority that is passed from the messiah to the church according to the Gospel of Matthew, where it is associated with the authority to guard the inclusiveness of the church, forgiving sins. 

          In my imagined journey of Mary, the fourth day finds her and Joseph in the middle stretch of the Jordan Valley, between two dusty villages, Zaphon and Adam.  On that stretch was a fortress built by Herod, the Alexandrium. It stood atop a conical mountain, clearly not the work of nature and a rather obscene intrusion on the valley built by Herod’s engineers.  It remains to this day with its eerie effect.

          A patrol of Herodian soldiers has passed them.  This encounter raised the question of the legitimacy of their authority.  Instinctively, Mary wants to trust them, even as Joseph, instinctively, distrusts them.  In time, Mary and Joseph see a small group of merchants coming towards them.

Reading now from page 150:  “Sometime after the soldiers had passed them, they spotted a group that looked like merchants, traveling north toward them. As they drew near, it was clear that some of them were wounded. Joseph rushed ahead to meet them and quickly began to help them dress their wounds. The words between them and Joseph were cryptic, but Mary could tell that Joseph was understanding what they were saying with perfect clarity. A few words had told him what had happened. Mary slipped off the donkey and joined Joseph in helping the wounded. Slowly their story was sinking into her consciousness. The group had been stopped by the same Herodian soldiers who had passed them. Their answers to the soldiers’ questions, had not been satisfactory, so the soldiers had beaten some of them. The beatings were supposed to elicit the answers that the soldier wanted and had gone on for a considerable length of time, since the merchants had no answers to give that would satisfy the soldiers.

            Why were the soldiers so insistent and what had they wanted to know?  It seems that during the past week somewhere along this road between Beth Sham and The Alexandrium, a similar squad of Herodian soldiers had been ambushed by a group of Zealots.  One of the soldiers had been killed and several wounded. The way the group’s spokesperson had pursed his lips as he recounted the story, made it clear that the injury to the soldiers gave him a great deal of satisfaction.  It was clear to Mary that these merchants held these Herodian soldiers in great contempt. It was also clear that this news neither surprised her husband nor found from him any form of rebuttal.  She had, of course, overheard her husband arguing with the men of Nazareth to the effect that Herod could not be the true king of the Jews since he was an Idumaean.  Even if he was a convert to Judaism, he could not be its king because he was not of the house of David. She had thought that Joseph argued this out of fun or for pride in his own lineage.  Now she changed her mind.  Joseph seemed to possess a seriousness about the matter that she had up to now underestimated.  

            After about an hour, the merchants resumed their journey north, and they south. Mary could not get out of her head the conundrum that those who were in authority did not respect the people and in turn they were not respected by the people, her husband included. How could one be safe in such a world where true authority was missing?  How could one feel good about bringing a child into this world?

            A phrase entered Mary’s mind, which she remembered overhearing Joseph use in his arguments with the men in Nazareth.  He would speak of the “Key of David.”  It seemed to name a hope;  name a messiah whom God would send. This messiah would bring an authority that would respect the people because it understood that it was the task of a king to serve the people. In turn this authority would be respected by the people because they would know that their life needed to be under authority.  Obviously, no man held this “Key of David:” not the Herodians who would beat witnesses, not the Roman’s whose arbitrary reign was sending her on this arduous trip, not the priests of her own people who were more concerned about their share of the sacrifice than the prayers.  Not the self-appointed Pharisees who judged everyone to be beneath them.  With the sudden loss of her innocence, she found herself with no legitimate authority unto whom she could entrust herself. Was there nothing to do except wait?

            She struggled with the puzzle. If this authority which is to come belonged to God, it would have already been here.  How else could men have come to have formed an expectation about it, if it hadn’t been with them once in some form or other? If the eternal God who will be, also once was, then he had to be right now as well. Suddenly she surrendered to the authority which had no soldiers to enforce it, no priest to parse it, and no scribe to declare it corban. At the same time, she trusted her unborn child to the protection of that authority. Whatever soldiers did or failed to do, that authority would justify bringing her child into this world.

            With her hands lifting her heavy abdomen, she prayed: “O Come thou Key of David Come.” “O Come Thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path of misery.”

          The question of authority is an issue in which we finds ourselves deeply conflicted. It is obvious in those places in our world that are at war, but in our social order as well.  There is a crisis in our policing which cuts both ways.  What authority do I have to ask someone to get out of a car?   What authority am I under, that makes me get out of car?  Where does this authority come from, or is just a question of power?  Our politics is equally conflicted.  What confers authority on an elected official?  What authority asks me to respect the acts of such an official?  Or does it come down to power?  Not to long ago, it seemed that judges had an authority which was more than simply a matter of power. This seems to get disproven daily as trials become contests over power, power appoint judges, power prolong trials and counter sue. 

          We might look at the challenge of our Advent, as summoning authority, which will distribute justice and peace across the world. We might pray: Come thou the Key of David, come. Katherine Tanner, a current Episcopal theologian has made the center of her theology a book called.  Christ the Key.  In she says “Christ is the key.  . . to what God is doing everywhere.  Christ clarifies and specifies the nature, aim, and trustworthiness of all God’s dealing with us because that is where those dealings with us come to ultimate fruition.”  

          That may sound evangelical because it is, but be aware that first impact of that call, is not on those out there, those others, but is on oneself, is putting oneself under the authority of the Christ, before it is an issue for anyone else. 

Watch for some Christmas specials and, of course, First Thursday in January, the fourth.

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