Updated: Feb 12
Icelandic: Pilatus hafði prófað nú
Text: Halgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674) Tune: Martin Luther (1483-1546)
1. Now Pilate had examined all
The charges against Jesus.
A trifling matter Pilate thought
That Christ was truth, who was he?
For worldly truth he feigned
Respect, God’s truth disdained—
The truth we’re called to love
That word that comes from God
Above all loves exceeding.
2. And then he went a second time
Where all his foes awaited.
"I cannot charge him with a crime,
There are no grounds,” he stated.
They harshly charged him still
Our Lord for good or ill.
With pride and threats they slammed
God’s innocent pure lamb,
Our Savior stood in silence.
3. “He has stirred up our countrymen,
Each place he goes and preaches,
In Galilee it all began
At last he now has reached us!”
To Pilate it occurred
He could avoid this curse.
Ask Herod for his help
He was the one himself
Who ruled where Christ was teaching.
4. For me, dear Jesus, you endured
This torment and deep suffering.
So I am glad that now I hear
Christ’s innocence is offered.
My sin has pressed me down,
In him no fault was found
Therefore your innocence
Is truly mine to sense.
For all my sins you suffered.
5. When God’s law comes to threaten me
And I await his justice,
My Jesus blessed comes to see
There is no charge against him.
You gave your innocence
Exchanged for my offense.
No accusation works
Made by these pious curs,
Against my patient servants.
6. The idle words that I have said
Should bring about my stumbling.
Except that Jesus, silent, blest,
Has my own faults now humbled.
My duty now is this,
To imitate your ways
And humbly hold my peace
When sufferings increase,
Let me observe this fully!
7. So Pilate thought this clever ruse—
Could not be but successful.
And filled with guile, he wished to use
King Herod, make him trouble.
This is a ploy of men
Adept at causing pain.
Be watchful, pray God bless!
The world loves craftiness
This falseness hurts the heedless.
8. The cross, O Jesus, was your goal.
You walked there so my spirit
Might rest again, oh, my dear soul,
In your eternal merit.
My priestly labors take
The time that I should make
To write. I gladly bear
All you want me to share.
To you be praise, thanksgiving! Amen.
Tr. Gracia Grindal 2019
This hymn comes from an Icelandic treasury that is little known among English
speakers, but should be. The Hymns of the Passion (Passíussálmer) by Hallgrímur
Pétursson (1614-1674), fifty hymns for Lent, dominate Icelandic poetry and church
life. A great poet, theologian and literary scholar, Hallgr.mur served as a pastor for
much of his life. His story is well worth telling.
Born in Hólar, Iceland, Hallgrímur was marked as a gifted boy, with something of an
unruly spirit. The school he attended taught the classical languages, the languages of
Europe, along with modern science, and the classics of theology and literature. It
was a great education for the young boy, but he got into trouble, we think, with
some of the ladies of the bishop’s see and fled to Europe. He ended up in Denmark
where he found work in a smithy. One day an Icelander, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, one of
Iceland’s most accomplished scholars, passed by the shop and heard some Icelandic
cursing. He investigated and met the young man. Immediately recognizing his
brilliance, he got him enrolled in the Cathedral school in Copenhagen.
In 1636, some Icelanders who had been captured in 1627 by Barberry pirates and
taken as slaves to Algiers, appeared in Copenhagen, after being ransomed by the
Danish king. Since the last ships for Iceland had sailed that year, the authorities
decided the freed slaves needed a kind of reeducation school in Lutheran doctrine.
Hallgrímur, almost finished with this theological studies, was asked to teach them.
As the class went on, he fell in love with one of the students, Guðríður
SÍmonardóttir. In a brief time, it became apparent that she was carrying his child.
Sixteen years older, she had been married in Iceland before she was kidnapped.
Adultery, at the time, was punishable by death. He was expelled from university and
they soon left for Iceland. Guðríður’s husband, they discovered, had died before they
met, making their affair less actionable.
For some time, they lived a hard scrabble life. By this time Brynólfur had become
Bishop of Skálholt, and remembered Hallgrímur. At the bishop’s recommendation,
Hallgr.mur was called to one of the poorest congregations in Iceland, Hvalsnes (very
near Keflavik airport). While there, to their great grief, they lost their little daughter,
Steinunn. He wrote a moving hymn on that loss.
After seven years there, he received a call to Saurbær congregation, a much richer
parish. While there he wrote these hymns, finishing them in 1659. They were
published in 1666. The end of his days were marked by pain and sorrow. The
Saubær church burned down and he had to give up his pastorate because of his poor
health, suffering from leprosy, fairly common in Iceland at the time, until his death.
Almost from the beginning these hymns have been cherished by Icelanders. The
church dominating the skyline of Reykjavik is named for him; during Lent, his
hymns are read on Icelandic radio; Icelandic composers set his hymns to choral
anthems, and they make up a large part of the Icelandic hymnal. This Holy Thursday
and Good Friday, Icelanders will be reading them in their churches and homes.
What is most edifying is the way Hallgrímur always draws the lessons from Jesus’
passion into his own life. What Jesus did is not something “back when.” Like the
previous two hymns, this one shows how Christ’s innocence became our own
through Christ’s sacrifice. Bringing Christ into the present is the job of the preacher.
I had an uncle who said that the hardest thing about preaching was getting Jesus
from Palestine to Fargo. Hallgrímur’s hymn brought the story of Christ’s passion
into every home in Iceland by teaching his readers how everything that happened to
Jesus during his passion affected their own lives.
I am including this hymn, Number 20 in the collection, because stanza 4 and stanza
8 have been beautifully set by one of Iceland’s most accomplished composers,
Sigurður Sævarsson, a friend of mine. He has written an entire oratorio using
many texts from the passion. He asked me to help him with a better English version
of the hymns than were available at the time.
As I began the project, I realized that now, in my retirement, I had time to do the
entire collection. With the help of the retired Bishop of Iceland, Karl Sigurbjörnsson,
I did so. The entire collection is now available in a beautiful book sold at the
Hallgrímur church and on line. You can sing the hymn, if you like, to the traditional
tune for the hymn in the Icelandic hymnal "Ein feste Burg"—A Mighty Fortress.
Selections from the Passíusálmer by Sævarsson
Sigurður’s setting of stanzas 4 and 8 from Hymn 20
link to my translation of the Passion Hymns