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Hymns and Carols: Adam Lay Ybounden

Hymns and Carols: Adam Lay Ybounden

In Advent and Christmas this year, we are running our first Hymns and Carols series. Today, Fr Simon Cuff reflects on the connexion between Christmas and Easter in the 14th century carol Adam Lay Ybounden.

There’s a strange thing that happens during sermon preparation at Easter and Christmas. At Easter, preparing sermons about the death and resurrection of Christ, it becomes almost impossible not to dwell on the events we celebrate at Christmas. As we reflect on the Christ’s Passion, the babe lying in the manger springs to mind. 

Likewise, at Christmas, when we set forth ‘how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the fate of this small child. 

In thirty-three short years he will be lying not in a manger, but in a tomb. In Christ, life and death come together, and it’s important that they do. In Christ, at the end of those years, life meets death, and death is defeated. 

Our liturgies, hymns and carols reflect this truth. At Christmas, we celebrate God becoming one of us. God’s triumphal entry into creation is not with a roar, great gusto and renown - as some modern theologies tend to overlook - but with the anonymity of a newborn’s whimper. When God speaks decisively in Christ, it is with the softness of an infant’s cry. At Easter, when we human beings reject the love of God, and try to put death life itself, he has the final word. Again, not with a roar and a shout, but with the expectant silence of an empty tomb. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

The challenge for preachers at either time of year is to try to tease apart the simplicity of God’s action, so that it might be understood amidst the complexity of human thought. This means the preacher has to overcome the temptation to think too readily about Christmas at Easter, and too readily about Easter at Christmas. All too often, this temptation means we collapse one into the other depending on what aspect of God’s action in Christ our particular theology emphasises. Does our theology seek to avoid knotty questions of soteriology to focus on God’s decisive solidarity with us in Christ? Do we focus on the transactional nature of the Cross and overlook that it is God himself who hangs there, so that what appears to be a tree of death, become for us the tree of life?

As we give thanks for the birth of Life at Christmas, and the death of death at Easter, there are two moments that always make us sit up and take notice. Both concern the first temptation that we read about in Genesis 2; the fall of Adam and Eve. 

During the Easter Vigil, we joyfully proclaim that wonderful Easter hymn, the Exultet:

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation, sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!.

The hymn continues, rejoicing at God’s triumph in Christ. And then we sing:

O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son! O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

During Advent and at Christmas, we sing a similar sentiment in the medieval carol, which is the subject to this essay: ‘Adam lay ybounden’. This 14th century carol exists in one manuscript that contains a number of other Christmas carols. ‘I saw a fair maiden’ and ‘I sing of a maiden that is matchless’. The manuscript also contains the less edifying, ‘I have a gentil cok’, which celebrates a particularly fine cockerel that the singer keeps around his chamber.

Both the former, more edifying, carols emphasise the tenderness of Christ’s birth. ‘I saw a fair maiden’ echoes the haunting refrain of a mother singing to her newborn, possibly demonstrating a previous life of the carol as a lovesong: ‘Lullay, mine Liking, my dear Son, mine Sweeting, lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling.’ The love expressed here is that between our Lady and her Saviour. ‘I sing of a maiden that is matchless’ reflects on the particular virtues of Mary in response to God’s call, but also of the silence and stillness of Christ’s first coming: ‘as still to his mother's bower as dew in April that falls on the flower’.

Adam lay ybounden’ strikes a different note. It begins by reflecting on the state of humanity since the fall. Humanity, represented by Adam, lay in bondage since the creation of humanity (‘four thousand winter’). Here, the author reflects the theology of S. Paul the Apostle. In a number of places in his letters, S. Paul points to humanity’s corporate sin and damnation in Adam, contrasted with our corporate life in Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes: ‘for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ’ (1 Cor 15.22). Likewise to the Romans he writes: ‘If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who received the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man Jesus Christ’. (Rom 5.17). S. Paul continues, with the words that provide the seed for the notion of the fall as ‘happy fault’: ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Rom 5.20).

At the heart of ‘Adam lay ybounden’ is that same ‘happy fault’ which we sing of in the Easter proclamation of the Exultet: ‘Ne had the apple taken been ne had never Our Lady, a-been heaven’s queen. Blessed be the time that apple taken was!’ O happy fault!

This ‘happy fault’ or ‘felix culpa’ strikes us as odd. It’s strange to think of the fall, that first disobedience and the cause of our separation from God, as a ‘happy’ circumstance. Likewise, it seems strange to think of the taking of the apple, by which according to Genesis Adam and Eve suffered their loss of innocence and through which death and toil enter creation, as a ‘blessed time’. Yet both the Exultet and Adam lay-ybounden are happy to joyfully sing this is so.

The idea isn’t alien theologically. It occurs in a number of places in the Western theological tradition - a tradition which has had a particular emphasis on the negative outcomes of Fall, and on subsequent fallen human nature. Indeed, the Fall continues to play an important role for many theologies in the Western tradition, even if substantial reflection on the nature of the Fall and on the first chapters of Genesis does not feature as much as reference to the Fall and its consequences is a starting point for many of these theologies.

We find S. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) in his Summa declare that:

But there is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin. For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom, hence it is written ‘Where sin abounded, grace did more abound. (Romans 5.20)

The notion of the Fall as ‘happy fault’ is most usually associated with S. Ambrose of Milan (337 - 397). In a number of places he refers positively to the Fall as a step in God’s providential plan: ‘the Lord knew that Adam would fall and then be redeemed by Christ. Happy ruin, that has such a beautiful reparation!’. 

It is too simplistic to rejoice at Adam’s fault without qualification. Likewise, it is too pessimistic to focus on Adam’s fault without emphasising how Christ has saved us from being doomed to repeat it. The ‘happy fault’ helps us overcome the temptation to gloom, and so to be motivated not by fear of damnation but by the reality of salvation. 

Singing of the ‘happy fault’ at Easter and blessing ‘the time that apple taken was’ also help us to see the unity of God’s action in Christ. The God who created us, has become one of us, will die for all of us to overcome all the ways we seek to separate ourselves from him. Beginning with an apple, and continuing with all the many ways we continue to reject God in our lives today. 

The fault is a happy one, because the very symbol of humankind’s rejection of God becomes the abyss which God bridges with his very self. For the gift of that self at Christmas, Adam lay ybounden, reminds us just how thankful we should be. It reminds us how we should found our lives on him; not out of fear of our faults, but out of joy at what he has done for us in Christ. This celebration is enough to be getting on with, as with joy we too can sing:

Blessed be the time that apple taken was! Therefore we may singen Deo gratias!  Thanks be to God!

  1.  S. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Third Part, Q.1, Art. 3

  2.  S. Ambrose, Commentary on Psalm 39

Adam lay ybounden,

Bounden in a bond;

Four thousand winter

Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple,

An apple that he took,

As clerkës finden written

In their book.

Nor had one apple taken been,

The apple taken been,

Then had never Our Lady

A-been heaven's queen.

Blessed be the time

That apple taken was.

Therefore we may singen

Deo gratias!

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