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HYMN FOR THE WEEK 2 The Seven Last Words

The Passion of Jesus Christ/The Harmony

Text: Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) Tune: Durch Adams Fall

Crucifixion Giotto

1. My heart! the seven words hear now That Jesus Christ hath spoken, When on the cross His heart through woe And murder dire was broken; Ope now the shrine, And lock them in, As gifts all price excelling. In bitter grief, They’ll give relief, ’Neath crosses joy instilling.

2. His first and chiefest care He made Who hated Him to cover: God for the wicked men He pray’d, That He’d their sin look over. “Forgive, forgive,” He said in love, “Them every one, O Father! Not one doth see What doeth he, In ignorance ’tis rather!”

3. How fair it is, let all learn here, To love their foes who grieve them, And all their faults with hearts sincere Aye freely to forgive them. He also shows, How grace o’erflows His heart, how kind His mood is, That e’en his foe, Who’d work Him woe, Doth in Him find what good is!

4. Then to His mother doth He speak, Who stood near him He loveth, And as He can, though voice be weak, With words of comfort sootheth: “Woman! there see Thy son, for me Thou shalt by him be guarded. Disciple! see, Let her by thee As mother be regarded.”

5. O faithful heart! thou car’st for all Thine own who truly love Thee, When they in tribulation fall Thou seest, the sight doth move Thee; A friend in need, In word and deed, Thou at their side appearest, Dost by Thy grace Find them a place, Them to good souls endearest.

6. The third thing that Thy lips have said Thou spak’st to him beside Thee, When, “Think upon me then,” he pray’d, “When God Himself shall guide Thee Up to Thy throne, Thy head shall crown As Lord of earth and heaven:” “To walk with Me To-day shall thee In Paradise be given.”

7. O blessèd word! O voice of joy! Can aught affright us?—never! Let death who seeketh to destroy, Now disappear for ever! Though he rage sore, What can he more Than soul and body sever? And meanwhile I Mount up on high, In joy to dwell for ever.

8. Christ’s word gives deepest peace and joy, The robber’s trouble stilleth; But He cries from the agony His holy breast that filleth, “Eli, my God, What heavy load Am I, Thy Son, now bearing? I call, and Thou Art silent now, Though I sink, seem’st not caring.”

9. This lesson learn, thou child of faith, When God His count’nance veileth, Lest thou be cast down in the path When trouble thee assaileth: Firm to Him cleave, Though He may leave, He’ll comfort soon, and cheer thee; True do thou be, Cry mightily, Until He turn and hear thee.

10. The Lord His voice now clear doth raise Through thirst that paineth sorely; “I thirst,” the Spring eternal says, The Lord of life and glory. What meaneth He? He showeth thee How He thy load sinks under, That thou did’st pile For Him, the while In sin’s ways thou did’st wander.

Dutch etching on Christ's Seven Last Words

11. Thereby He also telleth thee How much He longs that ever His cross in each may fruitful be, Fail of its end may never. Mark this all ye, Now carefully, Who’re in soul tribulation: Th’ eternal Sun Refuseth none The soul’s part and salvation.

12. And as the gloomy night of death Upon the Lord descended, “’Tis finish’d,” He with dying breath Said, “now my work is ended; What was foretold In days of old, By seers who went before me, Doth now betide; I’m crucified, And men now triumph o’er me.”

13. “’Tis finish’d!”—why then toilest thou? In vain thy labour ever! As if aught human strength can do, Could e’er from guilt deliver! ’Tis done! beware, And never dare To add aught to it ever; Do thou believe, In faith aye cleave To Him, forsake Him never.

14. His voice at length the Lord doth raise, High over all ’tis swelling: “My spirit, Father! to the place Take where Thou’rt ever dwelling, My soul receive, That now doth leave This body sorely riven.” And at the word, To the great Lord Release from pain was given.

15. Oh! would to God, that I might end My life as His was ended, My spirit unto God commend As His was then commended. O Christ, my Lord! May Thy last word The last be by me spoken; So happily I’ll go to Thee, When life’s last thread is broken.

Tr. John Kelly 1867


Tatian the Syrian

Holy week, especially Palm Sunday, is the Sunday that liturgical churches often read the Passion of our Lord, the account of Jesus’ suffering and death. It used to be included in our hymnals and read for home devotions. It could have even been sung in a hymn, like Gerhardt's. It is a compilation of the Passion story taken from all four Gospels, something the church called The Harmony. It began in the second century of the church when a Syrian scholar named Tatian (120-180) combined the four gospels into one narrative. This was done for devotional purposes so people could read and meditate on the life of Jesus in one account. In it we get the Seven Last Words for meditating on since no Gospel includes them all.

In the 19th century, some scholars used the differing accounts in the four gospels to argue that the lack of agreement in the gospels meant that the story of Jesus was mostly legends and fiction. Scholars began to talk about Luke’s Jesus and how he differed from John’s Jesus. While I understand that, it had a way of undermining the Gospel writers and made them seem like fiction writers. The idea of the harmony was abandoned.

Lately, scholars are returning to the life of Jesus as a harmony. Pope Benedict did, and my colleague, Roy Harrisville, just finished one. My sonnets (which are now available) are based on the 160 Scripture lessons from the Gospels that make up the harmony.

It makes for a long hymn to include all of the Seven Last Words, but there are several that do: Thomas Kingo, Denmark’s first great hymn writer, wrote one, as did Paul Gerhardt which you can read above. (The tune is difficult and the text too long, I know!) I think they could be sung with pauses or reflections in between each word from the cross during a Good Friday service. It is a common Lenten discipline to meditate on these last words of Christ.

Where the Seven Last Words really thrive are in the great choral pieces that focus on them—Heinrich Schutz‘ cantata and Joseph Haydn’s choral piece are profoundly moving. As is Dubois’ much beloved cantata. There are several new choral settings of the words which are also fine pieces.

This is a week that brings us to the heart of the mystery of our faith and of God’s love for us in Jesus. It is unfathomable. And over the last millenia it has caused some of our greatest artists to compose some of the greatest, deepest music and poetry of all time. What language shall I borrow? Listen!


(The remaining links are longer pieces, much loved and well worth your time. You can listen one word at a time!)

Theodore Dubois' "Seven Last Words“

Koinonina Baptist Church/Gary, Indiana

Heinrich Schütz "The Seven Last Words on the Cross" SWV 478

Joseph Haydn's "The Seven Last Words"

Cesar Franck "Les Sept paroles du Christ en croix"

Michael John Trotta's "Seven Last Words”

James Macmillan's "Seven last Words" commissioned by BBC 1993

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