Words: Bernard of Clairvaux (b. _____, 1091; d. Aug. 21, 1153)
Music: Hans Leo Hassler (b. Oct. 25, 1654; d. June 8, 1612)
Note: Though hymn books traditionally attribute this Mediaeval text to Bernard, evidence is lacking to definitely prove his authorship of the original Latin poem. Some suggest Arnulf of Louvain (or Leuven) (1200-1251) as a possibility. Arnulf was a Cistercian abbot, and a poet.
Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) made a German translation of the hymn in 1656, and James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859), a Presbyterian pastor, translated the hymn into English in 1830.
As for the tune, in 1601 Hassler adapted it from a secular ballad of the day. In 1729 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used it in his oratorio the St. Matthew Passion. It is Bach’s harmonization that is commonly used in our hymn books.
This hymn text comes from the Mediaeval practice of viewing and speaking to the form of the crucified Christ, as represented by a crucifix. Hymnologist Ellen Jane Lorenz (Two Hundred Hymn Stories, p. 37) writes that there is a legend from the time that the image of Christ on the cross bowed itself and embraced Bernard, as a token that his devotion was accepted.
The lengthy Latin poem was divided into seven parts, one for each day of Holy Week. The seven sections deal with seven parts of Christ’s body on the cross: His feet, knees, hands, sides, breast, heart, and head. For example, the hymn writer says (CH-3): “The blushes late residing upon that holy cheek….Alas! they have departed.”
It’s the final section of the poem addressing Christ’s head that Gerhardt and Alexander adopted. The Cyber Hymnal gives us ten stanzas, of which only three or four are commonly found in our hymnals: CH-1, 4, and 8, with some hymn books also including CH-10. (Note: “vouchsafe” in CH-4 means to condescend to grant a favour.)
Though this hymn has been embraced by Protestant congregations, there is a strong atmosphere of Mediaeval Roman Catholicism about it. The original title was: “A rhythmical prayer to any one of the members [i.e. body parts] of Christ, suffering and hanging on the cross.” But are we called upon by the Scriptures to pray to the parts of Christ’s body on the cross? In fact, is He now on the cross?
Carlton R. Young, in his Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (p. 526) asserts that this practice of addressing Christ on the cross has carried over into Protestantism, but the examples he gives do not seem to support his argument. One is Isaac Watts’ hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. But this hymn calls for us to look upon (“survey”) the cross, with the eyes of faith, considering its significance. It doesn’t involve speaking to the dying Saviour there–let alone addressing His various body parts!
While we, as Christians, look back upon the sufferings of Christ with awe and reverence, we know that Christ was afterwards triumphant over death, then ascended and is seated at the Father’s right hand. We now come before our living and glorified “great High Priest” in heaven, seeking mercy and grace in His holy name (Heb. 4:14-16), “knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him” (Rom. 6:9). That is why the crosses in Protestant churches are empty. “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all” (Heb. 6:10).
Having said these things, the three stanzas most commonly used today are the best, in my view. And there is a warmth of devotion and faith in them–and certainly truth regarding the substitutionary nature of the death of Christ. (Gerhardt’s adaption of the original has strengthened this.) Separated by eleven or twelve centuries from its ritual application, the hymn is used by many congregations, especially at the Easter season. I’ve included it in services myself. However, the background may give some Christians pause.
CH-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.
CH-4) 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 Saviour!
’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favour,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
1) Is this a hymn you do (or would) use? (Why? Or why not?)
2) What great hymns about the cross have been a blessing to you?