Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Felix Culpa

Before you accuse me of posting porn on my blog, hear me out. The painting posted here is a depiction of felix culpa, a Latin phrase that comes from the words Felix (happy, fortunate, blessed) and Culpa (which means “fault” or “fall”). It is thus translated “Happy Fault” or “Fortunate Fall.”

We Protestants are unfamiliar with this mostly Catholic term, but as I follow the line of thinking, I find I like it. A lot. First of all, most of us bemoan and gripe about that stupid Eve who ate the apple. She’s the butt of way too many jokes, i.e. “If it wasn’t for Eve we’d all be back in the garden eating strawberries.” She gets most of the blame when, truth be told, the Scriptures make clear she was deceived and it was Adam who took his bite with full knowledge of what he was doing.

Felix Culpa is known theologically as the source of original sin. The term is said to have originated in the Fourth Century with St. Augustine, but has been alluded to in many other contexts including poetry, literature, and film.

Here’s the idea behind it. During the hours of darkness between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter day there is the first celebration of the resurrection. It is sung in the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil and contains these words, “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” It is an enactment of the truth that medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas cited when he explained how “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom.”
In other words, had it not been for the Fall we would have no need of this glorious Redeemer, His incarnation or resurrection. Therefore, it is a Fortunate Fall or a Happy Fault. Doesn’t that turn the whole thing about the Fall around?

Robert Frost so beautifully captured this whole idea in his poem Nothing Gold Can Stay. In this piece of literature the metaphors of Eden and the Fall are reenacted and the idea of Felix Culpa is brought to bear on the creation.

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

And I wondered as I thought about all this, how things might be different for us if we viewed our misfortunes, our calamities, faults, and stupid choices with this truth in mind. So much in this life is fleeting and we are often distracted right at the moment when we should pay the most attention. What if we took the position that what we view as the world’s worst natural disaster might just be a happy fault. A blessed fall. That out of the ruins we made of things, something good and wonderful might just spring forth, like the Phoenix from the ashes. Might it be that in the end, it all counts for something?

In the first link the words to the Exultet scroll for you to read and in the background the antiphonal singing (where a hymn is performed by two groups of singers chanting alternate sections) is heard. Don’t be in a hurry. Let the music soak into you spirit.
The second link will take you to just the words. Scroll down a bit after you get to the page. . You may want to include this in your preparation for Easter morning. Such a clear story of the Gospel is given here in this hymn.

The day will come when the Second Law of Thermodynamics is no longer in play. When all things will be moving up, not tearing down. In that day, we will drink our fill of truth, goodness, and beauty, and all the gold will stay.


  1. As someone familiar with my own many happy faults, I'm blessed to read this encouragement. Thanks for reminding me that He makes all things beautiful. Another inspired writing by Cathee Poulsen. I am never disappointed.

  2. Comments I received in emails:
    Thanks. That is some deep thinking. Don’t know how you did it!! I have always believe that God can bring good and blessing out of our worse times but never near as articulate as you think or write it.

    Thankyou Cathee for today's post. My husband and I are also Baptists, working in Hungary, Central Europe for nigh on 20 years. I had no idea that others who follow the 'non-liturgical' road of us Protestants see beauty and great value in the old ways, the old words of the church before Martin Luther and later others, "threw out the baby with the bathwater" if that isn't too irreverent a term?!
    I listened to the Exsultet and found in it great joy and spiritual food. So, thankyou again.
    Thankyou too for your piece about Justice. I too have spoken of Jesus to those who seemingly do not understand and been convinced that they do indeed know Him.
    God bless you and yours as Easter-time approaches,
    Wendy Csaplár