Adam and Eve. A creation tale which explains why life is less than perfect, even though there’s an all-powerful god in charge. Of apples, and serpents, and Satan. Of Paradise lost.
The first lesson in ‘Nine Lessons and Carols” tells the story of a fall. How the characters in a story make an irreversible choice.And the punishments are draconian. Remember man, the story’s god tells Adam, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
His words to Eve? Your desire shall be for your husband, the Almighty tells the woman, and he shall rule over you.This story says woman is doomed to yearn for that which has power over her.
Every lesson has a partner piece of music in Nine Lessons. And this story of the Fallen is framed by the voice of an angel: a little choirboy singing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.
The lyrics were written by the woman who gave us All Things Bright and Beautiful. Cecil Frances Alexander, allied closely with the Oxford movement, was already famous for her poetry and hymn writing by the time she was in her twenties. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and destined to marry the man who would become bishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
O Little Town was written to answer the question of a child, as were all the poems written in Hymns For Little Children, published in 1848. Where was Jesus born? Goes the question, and the song is the answer.
Cecil Frances Alexander was a woman of some considerable influence, and she used it as all Victorian benefactresses did: to help the needy. She was involved in a particular enterprise which resonates strangely: she helped the Derry House of Fallen Women.
The name vibrates with heavy-handed paternalistic judgement, with a rather final sound. Once a fallen woman, could one ever become a risen one? For mens desire shall be for you, and men shall rule over you. Look at Charles Dickens: he ran just such a house, and exercised iron control to bring the women in Urania Cottage, Shepherds Bush, to his well-meant, prescribed kind of redemption.
In another story, the real Bethlehem, packed with every kind of incomer because of the Roman census, would have had its share of the fallen wandering its streets. One must be grateful there were no houses for fallen women there. There are times when insignificance accords one autonomy, and the ability to be invisible suited Mary.
She was the lowest of the low: a woman pregnant, but not by her husband, homeless in a strange town.
Thank the Heavens, there was no-one there to Redeem her.
1. There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu;
2. For in this rose contained was
Heaven and earth in little space;
3. By that rose we may well see
That he is God in persons three,
4. The angels sungen the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis deo:
5. Leave we all this worldly mirth,
And follow we this joyful birth;
6. Alleluia, res miranda,
Pares forma, gaudeamus,