O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

Liturgy Lesson: March 1, 2020
Call to Worship: Selections from Isaiah 44, Ps. 18, and Jude
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: All Creatures of Our God and King (#115)
Baptism: Paige Lucia Finley
Confession: from Isaiah 44
Assurance of Pardon: Col. 1:13-14 and 3:1-4
Hymn of Assurance: My Worth is Not in What I Own
Reading of the Word: Luke 14:25-35
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
The Lord’s Supper: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded (#247); Man of Sorrows! What a Name (#246)
Closing Hymn: Look Ye Saints (#299)

The Agony
By George Herbert

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
– 1 Cor. 1:18

This is the first Sunday in Lent, the (roughly) six-week period in the Christian liturgical calendar that lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter. It is traditionally a time of prayer, fasting, self-denial, and repentance, during which the Christian believer draws closer to God by following the example of Christ, who fasted in the wilderness for forty days.

There is perhaps no other liturgical season of the church that is more countercultural than Lent. In an era of glut and fullness, the Christian empties out. In a culture of indulgence and entertainment, the Christian fasts and prays. In a western ideological world where the self is sovereign, the Christian denies himself, takes up his cross, and follows Jesus. Lent, therefore, is a time to re-establish disciplines and habits that can be, in essence, syncing our heartbeats with the rhythm of Christ’s, and tuning our lives in harmony with His. It is a season of turning our compass back to true north and charting our course toward the Word in the wilderness.

This is our true GPS (God’s Powerful Summons) that calls to us: “Come away my Beloved.” Those who follow this pilgrim’s path may find it to be rough and rock-strewn, but ultimately it leads them to a “broad, spacious place” (Ps. 18:19) where delight and deliverance await. Here in the quiet places we can hear the Triune chord in all its harmonic fullness. This is the beautiful and barren place where, at the behest of the Father, the Spirit has led the Son. And so, we too shall follow his footsteps and find the place where our Savior prayed. There we can kneel in the twin hollows of the rock, the place worn smooth by his knees. When faced with our cravings, we can answer with him, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Lk. 4:4). When the tempter holds out the ripe red apple, our Savior can stay our hand and teach us how to pray: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Lk. 4:8).

Brothers and sisters, “seek and you shall find” (Matt. 7:7). “Draw near to him and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). “For the Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 121).

If you find yourself in a stark and barren place, if all around you is wasteland, hear, once again, his voice.

I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isaiah 41:18).

Our Savior’s tears have created for us an oasis in the desert. There is cool shade under his tree, and living water flowing from the Rock. Come away, beloved, and be satisfied.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
Text: Latin, Medieval, attr. Bernard of Clairvaux
Tune: Hans Hassler, 1601; adapted, J.S, Bach, 1729

Could there be any greater hymn on the crucifixion than this one? I hesitate to even attempt to curate it, because that would be like analyzing the colors in the sunset or dissecting a rosebud. Beauty beckons us to behold. It does not invite us to inspect and examine. The telos of any study of music, art, or nature is worship of the Creator, not the thing created. Any knowledge that is gained through a closer look at the thing made should increase our gratitude for the Maker. He is our Father, the Giver of every good gift. And so, with that end in mind, let’s take a closer look at this priceless hymn.

The text comes to us by way of multiple translations from its original Latin. It was translated into German in 1656 by the Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt, and then into English in 1830 by James Alexander. The original poem, entitled “Salve Mundi Salutare,” was comprised of fifty lines, and is an extended meditation on the various parts of Christ’s crucified body. In certain medieval orders, monks would spend hours meditating upon the crucifix. They would mentally divide the body of Christ into parts and meditate on each part respectively (i.e. his feet, hands, side, breast, heart, and head). The three stanzas of our hymn comprise the latter portion, which focuses on the head of Christ, wounded and bowed down with grief.

This extended prayer is attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), a French abbot who was crazy in love with Jesus. His passionate devotion to God was a bonfire that kindled and re-kindled the faith of many other spiritual leaders who came after him. His voice is revered across theological traditions. John Calvin, in his masterwork Institutes of the Christian Religion, quotes Bernard repeatedly, more than anyone. It’s also noteworthy that Calvin always quotes Bernard favorably, as did Martin Luther.

The dominant theme of Bernard’s ministry was the love of God. This was a man captivated, indeed ravished by, the love of God. So much so, he makes an appearance in what is arguably the greatest poem ever written: The Divine Comedy by Dante. In the third and final book (the Paradiso), neither Virgil (the epitome of knowledge) nor Beatrice (the epitome of love), lead Dante the final steps to the face of God. Dante’s final guide is none other than Bernard of Clairvaux. It’s Dante’s way of saying that Bernard leads him to the love of God more than any other.

Bernard’s love of God flowed from a profound gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. So many of Bernard’s mystical writings and sermons sustain a laser focus on the cross. It is no surprise, then, that the most lasting legacy he leaves us in our hymnals is “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Here is the Cistercian monk himself talking about his enamorado (state of being in love) with the sufferings of Jesus.

“As for me, from the beginning of my conversion to God, to make up for all the merits which I knew myself to lack, I applied myself with diligence to collect together and to bind into a bundle, and to place between my breasts, all the cares and sorrows which Our Lord had to endure: the sufferings of His childhood years, the labors he underwent in preaching, the fatigue of His journeyings, His watching in prayer, His temptations and fasting, His tears of compassion, the traps laid for Him in His speech; and finally the perils from false brethren, the revilings, the spittings, the blows, the mockeries, the reproaches, the nails. And you, my dearest brethren, if you are wise, will never suffer this precious little bundle of myrrh to be taken from the center of your hearts, even for the space of a single hour; but you will keep constantly before your minds and ponder in assiduous meditation all that Christ endured for your sins, so that like the Spouse you also may be able to say ‘Fasciculus myrrhae dilectus meus mihi, inter ubera mea commorabitur (A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, he shall abide between my breasts).”

Distill all of that into hymn verse and you get profound poetic statements like this. Do not miss the astonishing paradox of the last line:

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.

The music for this hymn is equally sublime. The tune is known as PASSION CHORALE, primarily for its famous association with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in which five stanzas of the hymn are sung. But though Bach adapted and harmonized the tune in 1729, the original melody was composed over a century earlier as a secular German courting song, whose title translates as “Confused are all my feelings, A tender maid’s the cause.” The rhythm of this melody was simplified and then paired with Gerhardt’s German translation by Johann Crüger in 1656. Despite its origins, the melody happens to be a perfect match for the source of the text. The Latin poem from which this hymn is derived names seven body parts of the crucified Jesus (feet, knees, hands, sides, breast, heart, and head), each one receiving its own litany of devotional prayers. How fascinating it is that every other phrase of this melody includes seven notes, with the first line of each hymn verse containing seven syllables. What a delight to discover that in both form and meter, this hymn makes an unintended tribute to its source material. No wonder Bach, the great musical architect, loved this tune.

It is Bach’s harmonizations of the melody, adaptations of the mode, and tapestry of inner moving vocal parts that elevate the music to another level. The melody on its own is haunting, full of pathos and the dark beauty of blood-stained wood. With Bach’s pen, however, it is transformed into a cathedral to the crucifixion. The poetry, when contained within the embrace of Bach’s exquisite writing, captivates in a deeper way, a way that merits a meditation on the beauty of Christ on the Cross. And, the setting we have in our hymnal is just the start. Have a listen below to the palette that Bach paints with in the other four harmonizations of this tune from St. Matthew Passion. As we walk through the passion, the part-writing becomes more complex and glorious. All composition students at conservatory are required to study Bach’s harmonizations, and in these examples, you can hear why. It is this sort of inspired beauty that should re-invigorate the church to continue to teach musical literacy. Imagine if every one of us could pick up the hymnal and read these harmony parts. Ah, what music we could make together!

This hymn reminds me of the Hope Diamond, one of the most famous jewels in the world. The jewel is believed to have originated in India, where the original (larger) stone was purchased in 1666 by a French gem merchant. Renowned for its exquisite blue color and awesome size, it was last reported to be insured for $250 million. Here we have a multi-layered metaphor for this transcendent hymn. On the surface we recognize both are unique gems that date back four centuries and are basically priceless. But if we dig deeper, we discover the origins of both have a similar story. The core was forged in the darkness, pressed hard under the weight of the earth, and formed into something unbreakable, imperishable, and of incomparable worth. This hymn reminds us of that “treasure hidden in a field” (Matt. 13:44) by fixing our gaze on the beautiful and broken body of Jesus. This is he whom we adore, and this is the faith that we sing.

I sometimes wonder if, during those forty days in the wilderness, Jesus ever saw the cross before him. Was there a time when the darkness was setting in, where the sun passed behind a leafless tree and cast a long shadow over him? Did he convulse when considering the agony that awaited him? What were those nights like, laying on the hard earth, cold and hungry? Could he even sleep? Can we, during these next six weeks, watch and pray with him, even if just for an hour? Can we find the strength to take up our own cross and follow him daily? May we find encouragement to do all this as we sing together:

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.

Sheet music
Bach’s harmonizations from St. Matthew Passion