O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
April 9, 2019
The text of this hymn is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux. Although this cannot be authenticated, we definitely can find Latin manuscripts from the 13th century that reference this text. The words are, in essence, a poem that consists of seven parts. Each part is designed to be sung on a different day of the week. Each part also addresses a different part of Jesus’ body as he hung on the cross – his feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head.
The present version is by James Alexander, who translated it from a German edition from 1656. The adaptation results in three verses, as follows:
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 ‘til now was thine! Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call thee mine.
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, and grant to me thy grace.
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end? O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.
The tune was originally used to set a secular text. I want to focus, however, on the present version, which is an example of the harmonization of J.S. Bach. Bach used this melody five times in his St. Matthew Passion. Bach wrote this major work for a single purpose – to present the Passion story through music. The St. Matthew Passion has long been considered the “noblest, most inspired musical treatment of the story of the crucifixion of Christ.” (Dover 1990)
As we approach Holy Week, I would like to encourage you to find musical representations of the Passion story and use them as part of your Lenten devotions. Hymns, such as O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, Taizé choruses, and sacred works by composers such as J.S. Bach, may enrich times of prayer and meditation and provide new ways to reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death. “But God demonstrates God’s own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Dr. Beth Mears – Forest Lake Presbyterian Church, Director of Music