Posted by: rcottrill | January 18, 2013

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

Words: Bernard of Clairvaux (b. _____, 1091; d. Aug. 21, 1153)
Music: Hans Leo Hassler (b. Oct. 25, 1654; d. June 8, 1612)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

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?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s latest hymnal from 2006 – Lutheran Service Book (and the two previous hymnals from 1982 and 1941) – all feature this hymn. LSB has two settings; 449 is the isorythmic J.S. Bach setting of the Hassler tune (Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen), and 450 is a rhythmic setting of the same tune, attributed simply to the 1941 ‘The Lutheran Hymnal’. The 1941 hymnal had 10 verses, translated into English from Gerhardt. LSB has 7 verses. It is the Good Friday hymn par excellence for Lutherans, and we sing all of the verses in response to the various sections of the Passion from St. John’s Gospel (basically John 18 &19).

    Also while it is not universal, many Lutheran congregations do retain or have restored the crucifix (we preach Christ crucified) in the sanctuary. My congregation has this and it is a wonderful devotional tool. We do not worship the statue in itself, but the reality it represents, that the death of Christ paid for our sins, is so very helpful for our people. In answer to your first question, absolutely yes – we do use this hymn and treasure it. It is especially appropriate for Good Friday as we focus on Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. The final verse from our hymnal is especially helpful devotionally:

    Be Thou my consolation,
    My shield, when I must die;
    Remind me of Thy passion
    When my last hour draws nigh.
    Mine eyes shall then behold Thee,
    Upon Thy cross shall dwell,
    My heart by faith enfold Thee.
    Who dieth thus dies well.

    It is very similar to the 3rd verse of ‘Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart’ (LSB 708 – Martin Schalling/Winkworth translation).

    Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
    To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
    That I may die unfearing;
    And in its narrow chamber keep
    My body safe in peaceful sleep
    Until Thy reappearing.
    And then from death awaken me,
    That these mine eyes with joy may see,
    O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
    My Savior and my fount of grace.
    Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend,
    My prayer attend,
    And I will praise Thee without end.

    That final verse is actually included in our pastoral agenda as one of the last things we sing/pray (preferably sing) with dying church members. It’s a powerful hymn of great hope in the face of death. One that I will certainly have sung at my funeral.

    • Thanks for you thoughtful (and helpful) comments, and for giving a little different perspective on this hymn. As to the crucifix, I can only speak from my own experience, having preached and sung in dozens of churches over the years, churches associated with many different denominations. I have never seen a crucifix in any of them.

      As to the hymn O Sacred Head, I did try to ride the fence a bit. As noted, I have made use of it in churches I’ve served. But I did want to recognize its background and original intent. Some may find this troubling, and I can understand that. Others greatly appreciate the hymn, and I have no problem with that.

      • Many Lutherans (I can’t speak for all) don’t even consider ourselves to be ‘Protestant’ – Luther didn’t separate from Rome, Rome excommunicated Luther. That is a digression for another time, though 🙂

        At any rate, I should have said from the outset how much I appreciated this post and your take on the hymn, one which I obviously love very much.

      • Thanks for your kind words and gracious spirit. Blogs by their very nature tend to be a vehicle for opinion. I do my best to research my comments–both historically and biblically–but do understand that others may come to a different conclusion.

        With respect to iconography, as I recall, Luther himself decried the destruction of church imagery in the name of reform. In my view it’s one of those areas in which Christians can differ quite widely without violating the Scriptures.

        As to whether Luther was a “Protestant” or not…a rabbit trail indeed! 🙂

  2. I love this hymn. I don’t think many Protestants know about its origin. I know I didn’t until I read about it in your blog.

    As for crucifixes, I have one hanging in my bedroom. I love it because it serves as a reminder to me of the price paid for my salvation, and also reminds me to be willing to suffer for the sake of others. And I’m definitely not Romsn Catholic. But I do think that sometimes the reformers threw out some good with the bad in their zeal to differentiate themselves from the Romans.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It was a surprise to me that many Protestants find inspiration in a crucifix. Did you know that great gospel song writer Fanny Crosby often wore a crucifix around her neck? She was definitely not a Roman Catholic either, but because she was blind, she was unable to benefit from all the pictures that have been painted of Christ on the cross.

  3. Hi, Robert,

    I missed this post somehow in my inbox and just now came across it. I am quite familiar with the origin of the hymn, and it doesn’t really bother me that much. The fact that the background of the hymn is Medieval Catholicism is interesting, but it is about as relevant to me as the fact that the background of the Christmas Tree is pagan. That is to say, the history is interesting, but the relevance to me is what I make of it in worshiping Christ.

    The crucifix remind me (more than the cross does) of the awfulness of my sin and the immensity of the shame and suffering that Christ bore to save me. I see crosses worn as trinkets by people whose lives hardly reflect the One Who died for me. Rarely do I see a crucifix worn that way, though some “artists” have gone out of their way to debase and profane the symbol of the crucifix.

    As always, your post was excellent and thoughtful and well worth reading.

    • H-m-m… Well, I have come across a number of non-Catholics who find encouragement in the crucifix. (And as I mentioned to another blogger, Fanny Crosby at times wore one.) It’s clearly a matter of personal choice. I can only say that, for myself, the image is closely tied to a theological position with which I disagree on significant points. Further, the empty cross speaks to me not only of Calvary, but of the fact that I serve a risen, glorified, living Saviour. (We did have a Christmas tree in December, though, and your point is well taken that a symbol is largely what we make it. :-))


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