Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Adam Lay Ybounden"


2 Peter 3:8-15a

Advent is about waiting. It is easy to believe that because the promised Day of the Lord, when all things will be set right, hasn’t happened yet, that it will never happen. And yet our Epistle reading exhorts us,

“Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…But the day of the Lord will come…”

The musical text I have chosen to speak on today begins also with waiting,

Adam lay ybounden, Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter thought he not too long.

The first thing many people will notice about this text is its strange English. That is because the text comes from a 15th Century manuscript of unknown authorship. It is believed that the lyrics originated with a wandering minstrel from around Norfolk in England.

Secondly, people may wonder what this rather strange text has to do with Advent or Christmas. The setting our choir just sung is by Boris Ord and is traditionally performed following the First Lesson at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, where Ord was organist from 1929 to 1957.

Its connection to Christmas may be easy to miss, but has to do with the opening words I just read. The author describes the first man, Adam as being bound in a bond. He is a prisoner in chains, waiting for deliverance.

He has been waiting four thousand years. Medieval exegetes of Holy Scripture attempted to determine the age of the world through the use of the various genealogies and dates recorded in the Bible. The accepted period of time from the creation of the world to the birth of Christ was roughly four thousand years.

Adam, as representative of all mankind, is in bondage on account of his sin. The fall of mankind, recorded in Genesis 3, has rendered us all prisoners of sin and death, but Jesus was born to set us free.

In medieval theology and art, the Patriarchs and faithful men and women of the Old Testament were often depicted as waiting in the “Limbo of the Fathers” for the messiah. It was these that Christ visited when he descended to the dead. 1 Peter chapter three describes Christ as going down to the underworld and making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. In iconography he is often shown as leading wasted prisoners out of the jaws of death.

The author of this song says that even “four thousand winter, thought he not too long.” Adam waited with joy because he believed the promise God made that the seed of his wife Eve would crush the head of the serpent by whose malice they were deceived and imprisoned.

In the fullness of time, when time was ripe and ready, God sent his Son to be born of a woman. In the words of another song,

“Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.”

Just as Adam waited with joyful expectation for the coming the savior, Jesus Christ, so we too wait with joy for his second coming even if he should tarry “four thousand winters long.” We regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

There is a note of astonished wonder in the next stanza of Adam lay ybounden.

And all was for an apple, An apple that he took,As clerkes finden written in their book.

There is a certain poetry to the biblical story. One plucked apple shared between a couple doomed the world! All the misery of the world originated in a single act of covetousness.

There are no insignificant sins. Every small act of rebellion and disobedience on our part has dire consequences.

This stanza also reveals something about the speaker. This isn’t a work of high theology and learning. It is a folk song written by a simple, ordinary person. He only knows the story as a kind of rumor. It is the clerks—the priests and monkish scholars—who found the story written in their book.

Remember this is during a time before the printing press made the Bible widely available. It was a time before most the accessibility of translations in the vernacular. Most lay people only knew what they were told, what they learned from songs, from paintings, and architecture.

This folk quality is part of what makes this text so endearing. We get a glimpse into the religious imagination of the common people of 15th century England.

The conclusion of his poem seems foolish and misguided, and yet there is a surprising depth and insight,

Ne had the apple taken been, The apple taken been,Ne had never our lady abeen heaven e queen.Blessed be the time that apple taken was, Therefore we moun singen,
Deo gracias, Deo gracias

People usually scratch their heads at this point. Is he somehow saying that the original sin was a good thing? The author seems to be suggesting that Adam’s sin was good thing because so much good came as a result. As Saint Paul asks, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?”

The fact is that sin, and all its horrible consequences remain damnable and evil. God has a holy sorrow and wrath against sin. In his folksy and somewhat impish way, however, the author of this song is offering a kind of theodicy. A theodicy is an argument for God’s goodness in view of the existence of evil.

Probably the most vexing question a person of faith can wrestle with is, “Why does God allow such suffering and evil in the world? If he is all powerful why doesn’t he stop it all?”

The author suggests that God allowed mankind’s fall, because through their redemption more good will come to the world than if they had remained innocent. Saint Augustine put it this way, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” 

This is the concept of the “Felix Culpa” a Latin expression that means happy or blessed fault. Our wandering minstrel may have known the phrase by way of the Exsultet which is sung at the Easter vigil. The English translation goes, "O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer."

It is also expressed beautifully in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. In that poem Adam says,

“O goodness infinite, Goodness immense!/ That all this good of evil shall produce,/ And evil turn to good; more wonderful/ Than that which creation first brought forth Light out of Darkness!”

As horrible as the suffering and evil in the world is now, it is a slight and momentary thing compared to the immensity of eternity. The misery brought by Adam may go on for thousands of years, but the blessing brought by Christ is everlasting. Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Returning to the song, “Ne had the apple taken been, The apple taken been,
Ne had never our lady abeen heaven e queen.” Why is this the big pay off?

Where in Holy Scripture do we see Our Lady as a Heavenly Queen? It is in the account of Jesus’ birth that often gets overlooked. It is the version we here in Revelation chapter twelve. St John doesn’t tell the story as we are used to hearing it. He shows us behind the curtain to what Jesus’ lowly birth looks like in the spiritual realm.

We see a great lady in heaven crowned with stars, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet. She is about to give birth to a Child, a king in fact, but there is a dragon waiting to devour him. This is the beginning of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will bring salvation to the world, but only after great struggle.

The Child is Christ and that heavenly Queen is our lady, Mary. It is that scene, a great lady in heaven crowned with stars, that Adam in his bonds was waiting to see. The child of that woman will crush the head of the serpent, the dragon, and set the world free.  


Therefore we sing Deo Gratias, Thanks be to God!