Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t. Johnny Depp
Today’s powerful hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, is one that exists only because of the contributions of many. In truth, no one person can actually take the credit for being the creator of this masterpiece, even though for centuries, most historians have assigned original authorship to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). If you recall, we looked briefly at Bernard’s illustrious history earlier in this blog series when we pondered his tender hymn, Jesus, The Very Thought of Thee. But more recent studies now indicate that the most likely candidate for authorship of this ancient hymn, O Sacred Head, is Arnulf of Leuven (1240-1248), who was abbot of the Cistercian abbey at Villers-la-Ville in Belgium.
But regardless of who wrote the original text, we do know that the hymn we now sing in church settings was just one short section of a much longer Latin poem entitled, Salve Mundi Salutare. In this work, seven stanzas of fifty lines each were used, with each section focusing on one portion of Christ’s body, as the Lord hung upon the Cross of Calvary. Stanza one, for example, focused on Christ’s feet; the second, on His knees; the third, His hands; the fourth, His pierced side; the fifth, Christ’s breast; the sixth, His heart; and finally, the seventh, Christ’s head.
Over four hundred years later, as the Reformation was spreading throughout central Europe, Paul Gerhardt, a German hymn writer who continued in the fine tradition set forth by Martin Luther himself, translated this ancient medieval poem into his native language. In a collection of German hymns and poetry published in 1656, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden first appeared, and before long, Gerhardt’s translation was set to music, and in a phrase young people will understand today, this ancient hymn went viral!
The melody assigned for singing Gerhardt’s text was that of a very popular, secular love song (Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen) written by Hans Leo Hassler in 1600. Classic composers such J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, and Rued Langgaard have borrowed this same melody (Passion Chorale) for some of their best-known creations, and even in our day and age, popular artists such as Paul Simon, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Dave Brubeck Trio have incorporated this same melody into their pop-music.
By the mid-1700’s, British hymn-writers began translating Gerhardt’s German lyrics into English, with revivalists such as John Wesley and others using this hymn (and many others written by Gerhardt) in their larger church gatherings. In 1752, one published version by John Gambold was entitled O Head, So Full Of Bruises. In 1830, an American Presbyterian pastor, James W. Alexander, gave it a go and translated Gerhardt’s text into what we now finally recognize as O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.
Here, without further delay, is just a portion of Alexander’s original 1830 text:
O Sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
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.
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.
My prayer: Father, let me never forget that many men and women of great faith have gone before me in keeping the ancient treasures of the Church alive for me to celebrate today. May I, through the empowerment of the Spirit, do my part in keeping these treasures alive for future generations. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: So in what creative ways can the ancient sacred words and music of past generations be kept alive in my day and time? What practical steps can I take in actively keeping these past treasures alive in my circle of influence?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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