Saturday, April 4, 2015

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

The Crowning With Thorns (Jan Janssens, ca 1647)

And they clothed him with purple, and platted a crown of thorns, and put it about his head, and began to salute him,
Hail, King of the Jews!
And they smote him on the head with a reed, and did spit upon him, and bowing their knees worshipped him. ~ Mark 15:17-19

Though we can hardly comprehend it, the physical agony entailed in Jesus' crucifixion is something of which we've all heard much discussion and seen many depictions. And we've probably often pondered the inconceivable weight of all human sin that Christ took upon Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, so crushing that He sweat blood (Luke 22:44).

But an overlooked dimension of Christ's Passion may be His humiliation. It is somehow especially heartbreaking that the most innocent and loving being ever to walk the earth, the glorious and praiseworthy Creator and Savior of the world, should--alone and helpless--be savagely mocked, ridiculed, and slapped around by the very people for whom He was laying down his life. That humiliation is symbolized by the purple robe and, especially, by the Crown of Thorns that was pressed into His head as the mockers pretended to hail Him King of the Jews. When we see these, we should remember that through OUR sins we were there, heaping scorn upon our Savior with the rest of them.  And yet we know that our souls were saved through that very suffering our sins brought upon Him.

A hymn that conveys this message most movingly is O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.


Bernard of Clairvaux
This hymn is based on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare, with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ's body hanging on the Cross. The last part of the poem, on which the hymn is based, focuses on Christ's head. Historically, the poem has been attributed to French Cistercian monk and scholar Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153).  Bernard was a man of exceptional piety and spiritual power, a confidant of Popes and a preacher to the King of France. Martin Luther, 400 years after Bernard's death, called him “the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.” Nevertheless, Salve mundi salutare is now widely credited to medieval poet Arnulf of Leuven (c.1200–1250), abbot of the Cistercian abbey at Viller-la-Ville, Belgium, about whom little else is known.

Paul Gerhardt
J.W. Alexander
But how did the final part of Salve mundi salutare become a hymn text?  That process began with its translation into German in 1656, by prolific Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The German hymn begins, "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" ("O Head full of blood and wounds"). The poem was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold (1711-1771), an Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire, England. His translation begins, "O Head so full of bruises." In 1830 a new English translation of the hymn was made by an American Presbyterian minister, James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859). This translation, beginning "O sacred head, now wounded," became one of the most widely used in 19th and 20th century hymnals. Another English translation, based on the German, was made in 1861 by English hymnist Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877). Published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, it begins, "O sacred head surrounded by crown of piercing thorn."  In 1899 English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930) made a fresh translation from the original Latin, beginning "O sacred Head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn." This version is used in the Church of England's New English Hymnal (1986) and several other late 20th-century hymn books.

Few modern hymnbooks contain all of the stanzas that have been associated with O Sacred Head in one or another version, though stanzas 1, 4, and 8 below appear in the vast majority. The following are the stanzas set forth in J.W. Alexander's 1830 version:

O sacred head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred head, what glory!
What bliss, till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call Thee mine.

O noblest brow, and dearest!
In other days the world
All feared, when Thou appeared’st,
What shame on Thee is hurled!
How art Thou pale with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn;
How does that visage anguish,
When once was bright as morn.

The blushes late residing
Upon that holy cheek,
The roses once abiding
Upon those lips so meek,
Alas! they have departed;
Wan Death has rifled all!
For weak and broken hearted,
I see Thy body fall.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered,
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

Receive me, my Redeemer,
My Shepherd, make me Thine;
Of every good the fountain,
Thou art the spring of mine.
Thy lips with love distilling,
And milk of truth sincere,
With Heaven’s bliss are filling
The soul that trembles here.

Beside Thee, Lord, I’ve taken
My place—forbid me not!
Hence will I ne’er be shaken,
Though Thou to death be brought,
If pain’s last paleness hold Thee,
In agony oppressed,
Then, then will I enfold Thee
Within this arm and breast!

The joy can ne’er be spoken,
Above all joys beside;
When in Thy body broken
I thus with safety hide.
My Lord of life, desiring
Thy glory now to see,
Beside the cross expiring,
I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

What language shall I borrow,
To thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Oh! make me Thine forever,
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee.

And when I am departing,
Oh! part not Thou from me;
When mortal pangs are darting,
Come, Lord, and set me free;
And when my heart must languish
Amidst the final throe,
Release me from mine anguish,
By Thine own pain and woe!

Be near me when I am dying,
Oh! show Thy cross to me;
And for my succor flying,
Come, Lord, and set me free!
These eyes new faith receiving,
From Jesus shall not move,
For he who dies believing,
Dies safely through Thy love.


Hans Leo Hassler
Johann Crüger
The music universally accompanying both German and English versions of O Sacred Head was composed around 1600 by German composer and organist Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) for a secular love song, "Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret" ("My heart is distracted by a gentle maid"), and first appeared in print in 1601. The tune was adapted and simplified for Gerhardt's hymn in 1656 by German composer Johann Crüger (1598-1662), who published it that year in his Praxis Pietatis MelicaJohann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) later arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in his St. Matthew Passion, which was first performed on Good Friday (April 11) 1727. Bach used the melody with different words in his Christmas Oratorio, both in the first choral and the triumphant final chorus.


Christ’s Head with Crown of Thorns
(Cranach the Elder, c.1520-25)

O Sacred Head has enjoyed great popularity since 1656. The hymn appears in all modern hymnals, in many languages and translations, and with various numbers of stanzas. Owing to its origins with Bernard of Clairvaux (or Arnulf of Leuven), it is closely associated with the Cistercian order.

An intensely personal hymn, O Sacred Head describes vividly the pain and shame that Jesus endured when He paid the terrible price for our sin on the Cross. The poet acknowledges our guilt for that suffering, prostrating himself in remorse yet celebrating the miraculous grace that washes us clean in Christ's blood. The later stanzas express our fervent desire always to be close and faithful to our Savior, in this life and the blessed one to come. Despite the stately pace and mournful key of the music, the message is ultimately one of boundless gratitude and joyful devotion.


There are many fine choral arrangements of O Sacred Head available for enjoyment.  Here is a lovely traditional one performed by the Altar of Praise Chorale:

Another, very heartfelt solo performance is this one by American Christian singer-songwriter Michael Card, accompanied by moving images of our Lord's passion:

Here are four chorale settings in German of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe:

* * * * *
Every day and in all we say and do, we should be deeply mindful of what our Savior endured to purchase our souls from death and earn for us eternal life, while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). The Crown of Thorns, made to be an instrument of pain and humiliation, has been replaced with the
Crown of Glory. Let this be a symbol, too, of our passage from degradation to glory with Christ and our Heavenly Father.

And when the chief Shepherd shall appear,
ye shall receive a crown of glory
that fadeth not away. ~ 1 Peter 5:4

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favorite Lenten hymns. The Bach 'St Matthew Passion' variations are just the way it should be sung: with such a light touch on the notes. Thank you for posting this.