If you’re a long-time church member, it’s likely that as you read that three-word title, your mind was already supplying the next words of the hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, and likely your ‘inner ear’ is also hearing the haunting melody. And if those things happened, it’s also likely that it evoked a powerful emotional response – a complex mixture of sorrow, remorse, gratitude, and reassurance. And that’s why this hymn is nearly synonymous with Holy Week for so many of us – a great hymn has that power to speak to both our head and our heart. But in this case, the words and music took a long time and a strange route before they were wedded in the form we now know.
Unlike many of the hymns in our hymnal, the words of O Sacred Head are not based on a Biblical text. The ‘idea’ for this hymn originates from a very lengthy 800-year-old Medieval Latin poem whose seven parts are each addressed to one aspect of Christ’s body on the cross. The author of the poem was probably an obscure French monk by the name of Arnulf of Leuven – a fellow so obscure that the work is frequently mis-attributed to a more famous poet (by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux).
About 400 years later, the prolific German hymn writer Paul Gerhardt, a Lutheran pastor whose output includes eight of the hymns in our hymnal, decided to make a hymn out of the seventh part that dealt with Christ’s face. Translating and liberally adapting it into German he set it to the tune of a popular love song of the day and titled it O Haupt voll Blut und Wonden (‘O Head full of Blood and Wounds’). The hymn hit the ‘big time’ when famed German composer J.S. Bach (also a Lutheran) appropriated it and arranged the familiar score we use today as a recurring theme in his oratorio masterpiece St. Matthew’s Passion, as well as several other of his works.
Much-much later, in a truly ironic twist, the hymn melody returned to its original secular roots when Paul Simon incorporated it in his 1970’s American Tune, which has also been ‘covered’ by Willie Nelson, the Indigo Girls, and Elvis Costello, to name just a few of its contemporary recording artists.
The version we sing was translated in 1829 by James W. Alexander, and the hymn has appeared in over 600 English hymnals of varied denominations in various adaptations of three to eleven stanzas.
In the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal used by Emmanuel, O Sacred Head appears as both #351 and #352 (the latter being the same words and melody with a different rhythm). The four verses lead us through a powerful meditation on Christ’s passion and its implications for us.
Verse 1 sketches the crucifixion scene and evokes our horror and sorrow at the bloody torture and humiliation of the King of Kings:
“O sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns thine only crown…”
Verse 2 calls for our remorse by reminding that it was our own sins that are the cause of this agony:
“… Thy grief and bitter passion were all for sinners gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.”
Verse 3 expresses the love and gratitude that fill our hearts as we contemplate this great sacrifice made on our behalf:
“What language shall I borrow to thank thee dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end. …
Lord let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.”
Verse 4 shifts our focus from contemplation of Christ’s death to the reassurance that it gives as we face our own:
“Lord be my consolation; shield me when I must die;
remind me of thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
These eyes new faith receiving, from thee shall never move,
for all who die believing, die safely in thy love.”
As we sing this beloved hymn on Good Friday of this Holy Week, may we find ourselves surrounded in spirit by the generations of believers who brought this marvelous work down to us, and all those who have sung it in devotion and confidence. Especially may we join them at the foot of our Savior’s cross, marveling at the Divine Love which paid such a high price for our salvation.