Adam lay i-bounden

I. Sunday in Lent

Adam lay i-bowndyn · bowndyn in a bond
fowre þowsand wynter þowt he not to long
And al was for an appil · an appil þat he tok
as clerkes fyndyn wretyn in here book
Ne hadde þe appil take ben þe appil taken ben
ne hadde never our lady · a ben hevene qwen
Blyssid be þe tyme þat appil take was
þere fore we mown syngyn · Deo gracias

The sole surviving source of this famous carol is a manuscript now in the British Library (Sloane 2593), dating from perhaps 1400, containing many carols, including the nearly as well known ‘I syng of a mayden’. The present lyric has been set by many modern composers, including probably most famously Benjamin Britten (in A Ceremony of Carols) and Peter Warlock. Even in modernized language the meaning of the text may be somewhat obscure to those not familiar with certain traditional doctrine.


Adam is believed to have lain in limbo (Sheol, Hades) with the other pre-Christian righteous ones (cf. the ‘bosom of Abraham’, Lk 16.22, whither poor Lazarus was carried away by angels at his death) until Christ’s descent to the dead to bring them out (the Harrowing of Hell):

[at the death of Christ ] the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
     Mt 27.52

...also [Christ ] went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison
     1P 3.19

For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.
     1P 4.6, read on Holy Saturday

In older Western tradition, this deliverance has tended to be seen as a one-time, historical event whose effects were limited to these righteous ones, though in the East the Harrowing is generally understood to be a timeless reality applying to all of creation, which ‘waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God... that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ [Rm 8.19,21]. Whether all those who live(d) and die(d) without explicit participation in the reconciling Body of Christ accept, or eventually will accept, His preaching remains a mystery opaque to us, though many opinions have been offered. In any case, Christ’s descent to the dead, though somewhat obscured by the Collect for Holy Saturday newly composed for the 1979 Prayer Book, is affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed, the Catechism [bcp 850], and Eucharistic Prayer D [bcp 374] (based on that from the ancient Liturgy of St Basil).

The conventional chronology of the Bible calculated the duration of Adam’s captivity as four thousand years.


As recounted in today’s Old Testament Lesson, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit (‘apple’) of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, despite God’s warning that if they did so, they would die. The inherent consequence of their act – unlike Christ, ‘counting equality with God something to be grasped’ [cf. Pp 2.6] rather than received as a gift at the appointed time; seeking knowledge without the proper preparation – was a breaking of communion with God, the expulsion from Paradise, exile in the wilderness, death, a lapse into the nothingness out of which we were created.


Our Lady’s role as Mother of Our Lord has entitled her in the tradition to the style of Queen (if Christ is King, then she is the Queen Mother); the vision of ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ [Rv 12.1], though simultaneously applied to the Israel and the Church, has informed Western iconography of the Queen of Heaven. Though this title and the associated hymody are not in official use in the Episcopal Church, the Prayer Book Collect for the Feast of St Mary the Virgin and Hymn 278 speak to her place in heaven:

O God, who hast taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of thine eternal kingdom...

Sing the chiefest joy of Mary
when on earth her work was done,
and the Lord of all creation
brought her to his heavenly home;
where, raised high with saints and angels,
in Jerusalem above,
she beholds her son and Savior
reigning as the Lord of love. (st. 4)


The concept of the felix culpa (‘happy fault’) is found as a sort of ecstatic, poetic exclamation in the traditional version of the Easter Proclamation –

O truly necessary sin of Adam, which was blotted out by the death of Christ!
O happy fault, which gained such and so great a Redeemer!

– but, beginning perhaps with St Ambrose, has been developed in the West (with its tendency to literalistic and legalistic thinking) as part of the theology of the Fall and original sin, with a causal link between Adam’s sin and the Incarnation of Christ for our redemption from that sin.

Though the felix culpa is a problematical concept, the account of Adam and Eve has been treated in a variety of ways in the tradition (many of them non-literal and non-historical; the Fathers were no fundamentalists), and the problem of sin, ‘original’ or otherwise, has been wrestled strenuously with, nevertheless we can affirm that despite our original citizenship in Paradise, God in His eternal purposes has always had even greater things in store for humanity: to move from the garden of innocence to the heavenly kingdom, city, house, and very nuptial chamber ‘prepared for [us] from the foundation of the world’ [Mt 25.34], where indeed we may take our place (see, famously, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ [Hymn 657]) – but only through a sharing in the self-offering, self-emptying work of Christ (see, again, Pp 2).

The transfiguration of Christ, which the Church just celebrated last Sunday, is the primary sign of the glory that awaits, as the Collect for that Last Sunday after the Epiphany and an Office hymn (‘O wondrous type! O vision fair’ [136/7]) for the Transfiguration remind us –

O God, who before the passion of thy [sic] only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory... [cf. 2Co 3.18]

With shining face and bright array,
Christ deigns to manifest today
what glory shall be theirs above
who joy in God with perfect love. (st. 3)

– but it is well to remember that this account is immediately preceded by Our Lord’s admonishment that

if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake [,and for the sake of the gospel,] will save it
     Mt 16.24–25; Mk 8.34–35

and followed by His prediction of His betrayal.

In Lent, then, the faithful undertake anew the ascesis (training) that helps us to acquire the spirit of humility, gratitude, and purity of heart that allow us grow into the full stature of Christ – ‘self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word’ [exhortation on Ash Wednesday] – in order ‘that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by [His] Word and Sacraments, [we] may come to the fullness of grace which [God] has prepared for those who love [Him]’ (Preface for later Lent; see also the Collect for All Saints’ Day).