Updated: May 3, 2020
German: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden
I Corinthians 1:18
Text: Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) Tune: Johan Crüger (1598-1665)
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Be near me when I am dying,
Oh! show Thy cross to me;
And for my succor flying,
Come, Lord, and set me free!
These eyes new faith receiving,
From Jesus shall not move,
For he who dies believing,
Dies safely through Thy love.
Tr. James Alexander 1830
Even though the crucifixion happened nearly 2000 years ago, on Good Friday I
always feel, about noon, a wrenching deep in the earth. The feeling of horror and
abandonment that the disciples must have felt is possible to sense even at this
distance in time and space. One feels the darkness that fell over Jerusalem, the
temple curtain ripping apart, the centurion announcing, “Surely this was the Son of
God,” the earth quaking and the graves releasing their dead. It is a cosmic moment
that pierces each human heart.
The original text for this hymn is from the Latin. It was translated into German by
Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) (See blog 9) who had been serving the Mittenwalde parish, some miles southeast of Berlin. There was said to be a Veronica on the altar. This is an image of Christ imprinted on a towel St. Veronica held to Christ’s face as he was carrying his cross on the Via Dolorosa. From looking at that image, it is said, Gerhardt
created this great hymn.
Whether or not that is true, the hymn causes us to picture an image like this as we sing it. Gerhardt insists throughout the hymn that this image is for us to contemplate as we are brought to the knowledge of our sins. All this was for us. The marvel is that he suffered for us to bring us into fellowship with him and his father while we were yet sinners.
The third stanza expresses our thanksgiving in translation (it isn’t really there in the German), one of the greatest lines in hymnody: “What language shall I borrow/To thank thee dearest friend?” Beneath the cross, there are few words to say except those that acknowledge the gift we have been given, so that we never, never “outlive our love” for him.
All this was done so we need not fear death or the grave. Thus the last stanza is a
prayer and confession of faith. Death will come to all of us, even though some live as
though this is not true. The virus has made many people come to the realization that they are not in full control of their lives. Our modern conveniences and relatively disease free lives have kept many from realizing they are mortal. Learning we are not in control
makes us panic. We react in anger and fear. This is not surprising. Martin Luther in a
meditation on Psalm 90 noted how terrible it was when people did not think they
were going to die. A surprising number of us have not faced this. The gospel is
meaningless to people who think they are immortal.
Christ came to save us from this illusion and give us what we cannot give ourselves:
eternal life. Christians stand beneath the cross and see the Savior. There is life in his
death we see as we gaze on his thorn crowned head. Here we see the depths Jesus
went through to rescue us and save us from the depths. Easter is coming.
Johan Sebastian Bach used this chorale several times in his cantatas and especially
the St. Matthew Passion. I always listen to the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew
Passion during Holy Week. In it you will hear three of the chorales discussed in these
blogs: Entrust to God/Ah! Holy Jesus/and O Sacred Head. For those of you wanting
to go to a concert, I would recommend listening to either of the Passions. As John
Gardiner says in his wonderful book Bach, “in the passions we become participants
in the re-enactment of a story which, however familiar, is told in ways calculated to
bring us up short, to jolt us out of our complacency, while throwing us a lifeline of
remorse, faith, and ultimately a path to salvation.” There is a helpful website with a
translation and comments on the music and the texts below—all of the Matthew
account with reflections on it, from arias to chorales. Very edifying!
St. Matthew Passion conducted by Gardiner (the whole thing!)
A libretto and an excellent guide and commentary on the entire passion
Icelandic jazz version/sax and organ