Sunday, December 20, 2009


The text of the “O antiphon” for tonight’s Evening Prayer is as follows:

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.

I referred before to the theme of freedom that was an echo of one of the other great Gospel canticles used in our Liturgy of the Hours, Morning Prayer’s Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus). [We also use the Canticle of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis) at Night Prayer]. It is true in the case of this antiphon, as well, with a quote: “To shine on those in darkness and in the shadow of death…”

The image of the Key of David looks in two directions: past and present. It alludes first of all to Isaiah 22:15ff. Shebna proves himself inadequate as a royal official, and the key of authority is taken from him and given to Eliakim: “…he shall open, and none shall shut; he shall shut, and none shall open.” Remember, it is the gate of heaven that is promised in today’s antiphon.

The image looks forward to two passages in the New Testament. The first is obvious for Catholics—Matthew 16:16-20, in which Jesus promises to give the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” to Peter. The second is perhaps not so well known: Revelation 3:7ff. In the introductory section of this final book of the Bible, Jesus commands John to write letters of warning or encouragement to the “seven churches” (those of and around Ephesus). In writing to the church of Philadelphia, the Spirit of Jesus (“who has the key of David”) declares: “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut…” In other words, the faithful of the church of Philadelphia who are enduring hardship are being told that as they endure no one will ever be able to shut them out of eternal life.

Jesus promises us the same thing in John 11:25, speaking to Martha about the raising of Lazarus: “…whoever believes in me, even if he dies, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
He comes to break down the walls of the prison of everlasting death (see also I Peter 3:18ff.). He is our promise and hope, and it is for this that we long.


  1. This year is actually the first I've heard of the "O Antiphons". And what makes it confusing to me is all these different wordings for each. You post one version. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops site has another. One of the small Advent prayer guides has yet a third (e.g. for Dec. 20: "O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel: you open and no one shuts; you shut and no one opens. Come and lead forth from his prison the captive sitting in the darkness and in the shadow of death."). Generally they start similarly, "O [Title]," but then vary widely.

  2. I cannot account for the differing translations, but the version I am posting is quoted from the Breviary, the Antiphon for the Canticle of Mary ("Magnificat") for Evening Prayer. So what I put up is the "official liturgical translation," but that's all I can say.