Nine Lessons and Carols: the First Lesson: Fallen

Picture via Wikipedia

Picture via Wikipedia

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;
    Res miranda.

3. By that rose we may well see
That he is God in persons three,
    Pari forma.

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,







19 thoughts on “Nine Lessons and Carols: the First Lesson: Fallen

  1. Having played Eve once (for six nights) onstage, I can say she gets a bad rap. She would’ve been far more likely to submit to Adam had he valiantly said, “I will protect you. I will shield you. I will make sure you have everything you need.” Instead of just eating the dang fruit along with her. She was the leader. He followed. What does that say about man?

    (And, I love men. I’m bashing this concept of women submitting, which I grew up with and find abhorrent.) I’ve always found it interesting that Mary was a strong figure. Joseph is almost an afterthought.

    1. Wow. Eve for six nights. That is quite a gig…..You’re right: Joseph is almost an afterthought. And the facts about Mary are sparse. I find it hard to make all the mediaeval story around Mary fall away. Their idealisation of the character has informed so much of this set of tales. Who she really was – rather than who she carried – remains a mystery.

    1. I think they are interesting in the same way as a mirror, Nancy: they tell us something about the people who wrote them. Some tales are most ancient and contain very different values from our own – Gilgamesh, for example. It is interesting that we don’t become impatient with those stories. Perhaps these Christian ones have been used on us all our life to try to teach us things and it is difficult to remain distanced.

  2. Interesting stories.. lovely references, and we do submit don’t we.. when was the last time I just went straight to the shower and to bed without any thought of feeding anyone let alone cleaning up after. imagine the shock and horror..they would think i was sick.. . is it submission though? or just common sense.. interesting.. c

    1. Or even humility. Very good question, Celi. Something tells me the key is not to look at our lives in terms of power-holders, but from a position of love. It is a different perspective, and a choice. If we choose regarding our lives through power spectacles, unless we are very powerful, we are doomed to unhappiness. If we choose to look at the world from a perspective of love I think we stand a fair chance of being happy. I think you do a rather splendid job in that department.

      1. Yes absolutely agree, and the most important word there is choose, we choose how we will behave and we choose to cook and we choose to be the peacemakers by holding our opinions sometimes and just letting life teach its own lessons. And we choose to clean up the mess rather than step over it. Power is an interesting word, in fact an interesting objective to have. he who seeks power also seeks dependence, and dependence is a tricky one. Having people totally dependent on one is a form of weakness, in fact, because if you stumble everything you built collapses. I always like the idea one of the roles we choose as a mother is to Empower so we gradually work ourselves out of a job! We love to see others powerful. What an excellent discussion. c

  3. If God exists I cannot believe that a Supreme Being has a gender, much less buys into any of these tales that lords one sex over the other. These bible stories were all man made. Give me an infinitely better guy-writer, Shakespeare.

    1. The glory of stories is that man makes them, and they are a window into a way of thinking. Shakespeare was an unparalleled story-teller. But I think there’s value in the old stories – Gilgamesh, or the Native American/Finn/Siberian earth-diver creation account. They often have elements which make us squeamish today. But to me they still, even without beguiling words, have a certain power.

  4. I’ve always loved the words Mark Twain gave Adam to speak while kneeling at Eve’s grave: “Wheresoever she was, THERE was Eden.” Which was the way Samuel Clemens felt about his Olivia.

  5. Good to have a reminder again of the Britten carol, Kate — thanks.

    I have to say that I love the jaunty English folk song that Vaughan Williams used to set Alexander’s words. I was brought up however with the American version, a little bit too sickly-sweet for my taste but beautifully sentimental and a great contrast to the English folk tune.

    Your masculinist OT theme reminds me of the erstwhile splendid magazine, the ironically named Spare Rib, which I remember occasionally browsing in the seventies. It was wound up in 1993 but twenty years on it still gets a mention — a recent one of which made me recall it in this context.

  6. Fantastic series opener, Kate. I love to follow your thoughts, and the stories behind the stories we tell this time of year have always fascinated me.

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