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“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” – Holy Saturday Reflection
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”
Music by H.L. Hassler and J.S. Bach, arr. L. Larson
Tim Hendrix, Piano

The origins of the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” are debated, but many believe that the author of the original text from which the hymn is derived was Burgundian abbot and doctor Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).  His long poem, Salve mundi salutare (“Hail, Savior of the World”), consists of seven cantos (subsections), each one addressing different members of Christ’s crucified body: the feet, the knees, the hands, the pierced side, the breast, the heart, and the face.  The “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” text we know today comes from Paul Gerhardt’s (1607-1676) German translation of the final stanza of the poem, which would later be translated into the familiar English version by American Presbyterian minister James W. Alexander (1804-1859).

 The PASSION CHORALE tune was originally composed by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) for a secular love song.  Johann Sebastian Bach (1605-1750) would later use it and reharmonize it in his St. Matthew Passion oratorio, giving us the musical version of the hymn that is most often used in North American hymnals. The hymn takes place at the time of the crucifixion on Good Friday…

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.

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?
Oh, make me thine forever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.

Be near when I am dying,
oh, show thy cross to me,
and for my rescue, flying,
come, Lord, and set me free!
These eyes, new faith receiving,
from Jesus shall not move,
for one who dies believing
dies safely, through thy love.

And then, on Holy Saturday, Jesus lays in the tomb.  While our Gospels were written down years later by authors who knew what would eventually happen on Sunday, the gut-wrenching grief and despair the disciples would have felt on that first Holy Saturday must have been just about unbearable.  One can imagine the disciples using “O Sacred Head” as a prayer to help themselves find hope through the pain, and as a reminder that in their suffering, they are still bound with God.  German theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes, “…when we feel pain we participate in [Christ’s] pain, and when we grieve, we share his grief… People who believe in the God who suffers with us, recognize their suffering in God, and God in their suffering.”

This Holy Saturday, as we eagerly await a renewed existence amidst the reality of continued isolation, pain, and death, may we learn to receive and accept our suffering as a means of identification and intimacy with Christ.  And may we remember that the God who suffers with us invites us into a love that will never die.

Christian McIvor