Monday, November 30, 2009

Apples and Advent: Doxology, Sin and Paradox
by Daniel T. Benedict, Jr.

Last night in Lessons and Carols for Advent Sunday at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Honolulu I was struck by the paradoxical nature of doxology in pre-Enlightenment texts. It seems that our ancient Christian siblings could not color within the lines the Enlightenment set out for us, their posterity, and so we borrow from those whose doxology knew no constraint in rejoicing in God’s saving work. Two examples come to mind: the medieval “Adam lay ybounden,” (the full text at bottom) often sung in services of Advent Lessons and Carols, and the “felix culpa” (“O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam”) text in the Easter Vigil’s ancient Exsultet. (See for full text. Accessed November 30, 2009.)

I will not explore here the scholarly apparatus and history of these examples, as that is amply done in other places. (Begin by searching wikipedia for both “felix culpa” and “Adam lay ybounden” for online starting points.) What strikes me as a pastor and student of liturgy is the phenomenon of otherwise and supposedly rational men and women, singing such words as “Blessed be the time/That apple taken was” and “O happy fault,/O necessary sin of Adam,/ which gained for us so great a Redeemer!” (Missale Romanum, 1970). What is it about the liturgy that allows us to entertain and embrace paradoxes we otherwise stumble over or go to great lengths to prop up with theological constructions and jargon?

In regard to the “O happy fault,” it is interesting to note that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) of the Episcopal Church in the United States does not include the felix culpa lines. I suspect that that omission was an intentional avoidance of the paradox of sanctifying sin. The BCP Exsultet does rejoice in Jesus Christ, the Paschal Lamb, “who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam's sin….” Was this a theological accommodation to the Enlightenment’s prizing of consistency at the expense of the liturgy’s freedom to play with paradox? (I would be happy to have correction and insight as to the reason for this omission.)

I hope that “play” is not too offensive a word to bring to this consideration. I use play not in the sense of irresponsible diversions or frivolous activity, but in the sense that Erik Erikson used the term: ritualized play by which we find home and a center. Without this play we are helpless and sidelined. Ritual activity links and expands our perceptive capacities for living in a world by orienting and centering us. (See Erik Erikson, Toys and Reasons: Stages in the Ritualization of Experience (Toronto: McLeod, 1972), p. 49 and my book, Patterned by Grace: How Liturgy Shapes Us (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2007), p. 26.

“Blessed be the time/That apple taken was” is not a theological premise to be defended or refined as much as it is ritual play, poetry, and doxology. It is a way to sing and dance our relationship with God in Christ: “Therefore we moun singen,/Deo gracias.” It is rejoicing within our liturgical, theological, and devotional inheritance (the biblical narrative in Gen. 3:1-15; the evolved doctrine of original sin, St. Augustine’s writings, “necessity,” and all the richly nuanced struggle of the church through the ages). It is playful acceptance of our place in God’s universe and of our reconciliation with God in our “great Redeemer.”

So, let us share in the imaginative play of those bards and deacons who still visit us from time to time in the church’s liturgy and delight with them in Adam’s apples, his happy fault, and the mystery of our reconciliation.

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 clerkes finden,
Written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our ladie,
Abeen heav'ne queen.

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen.
Deo gracias! Anonymous 15th century

Illustration: William Blake's "The Temptation and Fall of Eve" for Milton's Paradise Lost.