“Adam lay ybounden”, originally titled Adam lay i-bowndyn, is a 15th-century English Christian text which uses a variety of languages and linguistic puns. It is of unknown authorship and relates the Biblical events of Genesis, Chapter 3 on the Fall of Humanity. Originally a song text, no contemporary musical settings survive, although there are many notable modern choral settings of the text. You can hear the carol here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azSVHUBHQYY
Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond. Four thousand winter thought he not too long.
And all was for an appil, an appil that he tok As clerkes finden written in their bok.
Ne had the appil take been, the appil take been, Ne had never our lady a been heavené quene.
Blessed be the time that appil take was. Therefor, we moun singen Deo Gracias!
Genesis 3: 1-8
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
Four thousand years would surely feel like a long time in captivity, even if the first 930 were spent bringing up the world’s first family. An abundance of time for Adam to understand his own actions, and God’s action, and to wonder at both. A long time to reflect, rebel, regret, repent, or renew hope. As Jesus is born in that four thousandth year, Adam would surely be rejoicing that the next era of God’s relationship with humanity is beginning.
Either Adam, or the medieval poet, marvels that everything unfolded over just an apple: ‘an apple that he took’. If we were to sit as Adam’s parole board, would we assess that the weight of these lyrics is on the insubstantial fruit, or the enormity of the crime? How curious that the poet would downplay stealing the knowledge of good and evil from God and the introduction of sin and its consequences to the world.
Did it really have to be this way? Was the apple’s theft necessary so that Christ would be born of Mary? The poet can almost conceive that Adam could have not sinned, and Christ not come, but it is fundamentally unimaginable to him. Of course, he knows suffering. He lives with death, and the harms that flow from sin, but above all that he knows, and adores Jesus, high King of heaven. Our redeemer, our rescuer. He knows what it is to have hope, and to be loved. And if he cannot imagine a life without Christ then he accepts, and even celebrates, that we live a fallen life in a suffering world. Not merely accepts it, but declares it blessed, and give thanks to God (Deo Gracias).
The best Christmas carols hold salvation in view, and here we have the fall, and the reassurance of God’s eternal kingdom as the bookends of time. We cannot fully comprehend either, but between them we worship: thanks be to God.
I call to the Lord, worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. You rescue me because you delight in me. I call to you in my distress, and when I long for vindication. Let me be found humble before you, and sing your praise. Amen (After Psalm 18)
The Rev’d Dr ‘Frin Lewis-Smith, Healthcare Chaplain in Salford