Latin: Membra Jesu Nostri
Text: Arnulf of Leuven, Abbot of Villers-la-Ville, (ca. 1200-1250) Tune: George William Martin (1828-1881) arr. by Arthur Sullivan
1 Wide open are your hands To pay with more than gold The awful debt of guilt and sin, Forever and of old. Ah, let me grasp those hands, That we may never part, And let the power of their blood Sustain my fainting heart. 2 Wide open are your arms, A fallen world to embrace, To win to love and endless rest Our wayward human race. Lord, I am sad and poor, But boundless is your grace; Give me the soul-transforming joy For which I seek your face. 3 Draw all my mind and heart Up to your throne on high, And let your sacred cross exalt My spirit to the sky. To these, your mighty hands, My spirit I resign. In life, I live alone to you; In death, I’m yours alone.
Tr. Charles Porterfield Krauth
This hymn is from a meditation on the limbs of Christ and his wounds, a popular devotional exercise in the Middle Ages. It has been attributed to the great doctor of the church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090-1153) a significant power broker in the Medieval church, who mediated between the various men who were or wanted to be pope. He encouraged the disastrous Second Crusade and was involved with the establishing of the Knights Templar. He helped further the work of his order, the Cistercians, building communities throughout Europe. Dante uses him as a guide to Paradise in his Divine Comedy. And he wrote one of the greatest hymns of the Middle Ages—Jesu, dulcis memoria. When I started researching this hymn, I thought, as many have, that it had come from that poem of 350 lines which is the source for a number of well-loved hymns in English, "Jesus the very thought of thee," and "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds," etc. But it did not.
The source is another poem, Membra Jesu Nostri. Recent scholarship has pointed to Arnulf, the Abbot of Villers de Ville as the author. He lived a bit later than Bernard. It certainly breathes the same piety as Bernard. Meditating on the wounds of Christ became a devotional discipline popular in the late middle ages, still popular in Luther's time.
Staupitz, Luther's spiritual advisor, told him once that instead of looking at himself, he should look at the wounds of Christ. Paul Gerhard, an orthodox Lutheran, used one of the stanzas of the Arnulf text for his hymn, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded." Gerhard looked at a picture of Jesus' head crowned with thorns every day on the altar in Mittenwald church where he served. So Lutherans have also mediated on the wounds of Christ enough to have one of their greatest hymns use the idea.
This hymn meditates on the hands of Christ, but does not more than obliquely speak of the wounds--"the power of the blood." There is plenty of language in the treasury of Christian piety that uses the nail scarred hands of Jesus, but given the anti-Catholicism of the day, Lutherans in the 19th century might have reacted against language about meditating on the wounds of Christ. The translator seemed to know that.
One cannot but think of Doubting Thomas, the Twin, and his announcement that he would not believe in the resurrection without seeing and touching Christ's wounds.
I am never sure when I read that account in John that Thomas actually does touch the wounds, or that on hearing Christ speak, he is simply bowled over and begins to worship Christ. In fact, he is the first in the Gospel to call Jesus both his Lord and God. His story gets at the mystery of the faith. We have a historical faith for which there is lots of evidence. But seeing is not believing. I once heard a famous Lutheran theologian speaking about the Shroud of Turin which was under investigation at the time. Some Christians were certain that it was authentic and would prove the resurrection beyond a shadow of a doubt. He noted that even if it did, it would not bring people to faith. Faith is a gift, given to us through the Word and the Spirit. It is a mysterious transaction, but when it happens, we can see to see. Then we can look at Christ and receive all that his hands have done for us and what they continue to give us.
The translator of the hymn, Charles Porterfield Krauth (1823-1883) was one of the greatest Lutheran scholars in America at the time. He helped found and then led the Philadelphia Mount Airy Seminary. He is best remembered for his book The Conservative Reformation and its Theology (1872). He also helped formulate the Galesburg Rule: Lutheran pastors for Lutheran pulpits. He was attracted to the Oxford Movement and the effort to rediscover devotional themes from the entire history of the church. So it is not surprising to see him as the translator of this medieval poem.
Martin, the composer, sang in the Westminster Boy's Choir when Queen Victoria was crowned. He was a talented musician and composer, writing especially for glee clubs and singing societies. A difficult temperament made him hard to work with and after some success he fell out of favor and ended up destitute and forsaken. This is the same tune as for "Make me a Captive Lord." Buxtedhude wrote the first Lutheran Oratorio on the original text for which I have provided a link below.
The Norsemen Quartet
Piano music https://youtu.be/mOAgaQFUzME
Buxtehude’s setting of the entire poem/René Jacobs conducting/ gorgeous!