O Clavis David

6 minute read

Preached at St Mary the Virgin, East Barnet, on the Third Sunday of Advent, 2014

O Key of David, and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no one shuts, who shuts and no one opens: Come, and bring forth the captive from the prison, the one who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

About 18 months ago, I was looking for a job. I was coming to the end of theological college. I had to look for a parish.

But how do you choose which parish to go for? You go to the church on one or two brief occasions. You meet the incumbent once or twice. How do you make such an important decision in so little time?

I got lots of advice. But my favourite was ‘have a look in the vestment cupboard’. The vestment cupboard tells you a lot about a parish. And indeed, when I came to the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, East Barnet, and looked in the vestment cupboard, I was delighted. There were two rose chasubles. Two! I knew that this was my kind of place.

And, joy of joys, today is one of the days we get to wear our rose vestments. It is ‘Gaudete’ Sunday.

Before Advent became a kind of month-long pre-Christmas, it was a season of fasting. It was a season of penitence, in pretty much exactly the same way as Lent. And on this Sunday, the third of Advent, you got to ease off on the fasting. You got to let your hair down a bit, have some butter on your bread. We wear purple during the whole of Advent, but, today, we lighten it up a bit. We wear rose. (It’s not pink. Really, it isn’t.)

It’s easy to make a mistake about the liturgical calendar. It’s easy to think about it as being basically like the secular calendar. You can easily think that celebrating Christmas or Easter is like celebrating a birthday or an anniversary. It’s just an arbitrary date to celebrate something that happened in the past.

But the Church’s calendar isn’t like that. We aren’t just looking back at an event in the past to celebrate it. Christmas and Easter aren’t just events that happened 2000 years ago in Palestine, which we remember in 2014. It’s not like remembering the Battle of Trafalgar or the Accession of the Queen, or the Armistice of 1918. It’s not about that.

No, the Church calendar, the liturgical year, is something very different. It’s about entering into a story. Because the liturgical year looks in three directions. It looks back, to the concrete events of history that took place 2000 years ago. It looks ahead, to their consummation at the end of all things. And it looks at the world today, and invites us to join in the story.

So in this season of Advent, we of course think back to the historical events leading up to the birth of Christ. We think of the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, of John the Baptist, of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We think of the journey to Bethlehem, of the excitement and nervousness and fear.

And we think forward, to the end of all things, when our Lord shall return to judge the world, to set right all that is now broken.

And we watch and wait for Christ to come among us today. What does this look like? I don’t know. I don’t know what it will look like when Christ is present in East Barnet.

But this is the mystery that the Church’s year invites us into. The liturgical calendar isn’t merely prescriptive colours and one or two themes to give a bit of variety to the boring bits of the service. It’s an invitation to participate in the mystery of salvation. It’s an invitation to order our lives by the patterns and rhythms of salvation. We look back at the events in the past; we look forward to the events of the future; and we live those realities in the world today.

So, we come to Advent, and we come to today. As I said before, today is ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. ‘Gaudete’ means ‘rejoice’: it’s the first word of the introit to the Latin mass of the day. It went something like this:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. … Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.

‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ That’s the invitation today. It’s why I’m wearing this colour. And why? ‘Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.’ We think back to times past, to God freeing Israel from exile. We think back to Jesus defeating the captivity of sin and death. And we look forwards, to the time when we will inherit a land overflowing with goodness and life: the promised land of Heaven. We are invited today to join in the rejoicing echoing through the ages, because Christ has taken away our captivity. We enter into the story of waiting for our Lord’s coming, not just with fear and trembling but also with joy.

This leads me, at long last, to the text for my sermon. We’ve taken a few of the great O Antiphons, the texts used in the last days before Christmas as we think of Christ’s coming. Today, our text is O Clavis David, O Key of David. A version of it is on your noticesheet.

O Key of David, and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no one shuts, who shuts and no one opens: Come, and bring forth the captive from the prison, the one who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

O Key of David. With these words, Jesus is acknowledged as the earthly descendent of the greatest of Israel’s kings. And we recall his great actions, opening the gates of hell and leading the captives free. We recall those deeds of the past, and we look for the deeds of the future. We look forwards to the time when he will come again, and set free all captives, no matter what they are captive to.

And, today, we look for the Key of David in our lives. We look for him as he opens wide and shuts fast. We look for him as he leads us free from our own captivities. We hear these words and we enter into the rhythms of this liturgical act.

Looking back at yesterday, looking forwards for tomorrow, and transforming today. That is what liturgy does. It envelopes us, draws us into a story that is so much greater than we can imagine. The liturgical year goes round and round, and draws us into the rhythms of eternity.

It’s easy to think of liturgical action, liturgical colour, as unnecessary frippery. It’s easy to think they’re nice-to-have but not essential. But that’s not right. In our liturgy, we locate ourselves within the great mystery of salvation. We root ourselves in history at the same time as reaching out for the future.

So, today, Gaudete Sunday, rejoice. As we recall Christ the Key of David, rejoice. Rejoice at the one who was and is and is to come.

To him be the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

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