O Key of David,
and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and no one can close,
you close and no one can open:
Come and rescue prisoners
who are seated in darkness,
and the shadow of death.
If you’ve ever spent any time in a prison in the United States, you will not read this antiphon as a universal desire for Christ to come and break down barriers and walls and liberate us all from the things that keep us bound.
If you’ve been in prison, on one side of the bars or the other, you will not gentle-down or spiritualize this plea. In a country where locking the cell door and throwing away the key is a national pastime, to reduce this antiphon’s desperation to the longings of our inner selves or for generic freedom is an evasion worthy of divine reproach.
The church that utters this cry from the most desolate regions of its soul knows about real prisoners in real prisons. It has languished in them itself, after all. One powerful strand of its history is nothing less than the history of outlaws and jailbirds.
This church knows that prisoners don’t need kindness or pity or understanding or even better conditions, although all that would be good. What they need is rescuing.
Rescuing from their own brokenness and despair and anger and violent impulses and whatever else it was that got them locked up in the first place.
Rescuing from the zealotry and self-righteousness and racism and unreasoning fear and inequality of our justice and penal systems.
Rescuing from the bloodlust of too many citizens who think prison is too good for prisoners, that they should be tormented, strung up, flayed alive, disappeared forever in some horrible way, not allowed to live, and even to live it up (they believe), in country clubs, while the law-abiding pick up the tab.
Rescuing from the willful aversion of the eye that never sees the fact that many prisoners are getting exactly what the bloodthirsty among us want them to get: torment, a living and indescribable hell.
Rescuing from the ordinary relief of citizens like you and me who, thanks to all those who are willing to throw away the keys, can go about our business, most of the time, without giving any of this nasty, vexing, implacable problem a single serious thought.
None of this is to deny that many prisoners are dangerous, implacably bent on harm, perhaps even irredeemable insofar as social rehabilitation is concerned. It is not to say that we should breezily unlock every cell, let everyone go, and inflict their harm on the law-abiding. It is not to forget victims of crime and their families, whose own sentences are indescribably unjust, life without parole.
No, this is not to romanticize prisoners. It is to dare to name them kin and children of God, as Jesus commanded, and to acknowledge that the darkness and the shadows of death in which they sit is not only of their own making but also of ours, and that we deepen the darkness and thicken the shadows by our forgetting them. By our being glad we can forget them. By our rarely, if ever, praying with tears for them. By our throwing away the key and going about our lives loving other neighbors and even other enemies, but not these. Anyone but these.
We refuse to know, or care very much, because we are implicated; implicated not because we played a role in their incarceration, although honest analysis might show that we all do; but because whether we like it or not, we share a human life and the human lot. If what prisoners need is to be rescued, then so do we. As they are rotting away in jail, so are we.
Which is the point: In the end, the antiphon is about our spiritual condition. We who live outside prisons are not free unless, paradoxically, we are making decisive moves to get ourselves locked up in prisons alongside real prisoners— locked up spiritually or physically, it doesn’t matter, as long as it is a real incarceration of mind, body, soul; as long as it ends up that we cannot even breathe while things are still as they are in this nation, and this world; as long as we learn how desperately urgent it is that someone with incontestable authority (for that is what the antiphon means by opening and shutting) should come, and come soon, to rescue us all from this madness.
Rescue won’t happen from a distance. The unlocking we beg for in the antiphon is not remote control unlocking, much less a spiritualized unlocking of good thoughts and wishful thinking. It is an unlocking by proximity, by a human hand.
And not just any human hand. The key in the lock is turned by a wounded hand, the hand of an arrested, judged, flayed, gashed, and humiliated man, a death row prisoner, a dead man walking. If anyone has the authority to wield that key, he does. And by extension, we who claim to have died with him do too.
We have the authority. We have the key. But it can’t be done from afar. At least some of us have to go. If the gospel is to have any credibility at all, key in hand, at least some of us have to go.