Hymn of the Week: September 12
by the Rev. Brooke Myers
Proper 19, Year B
O Sacred Head Sore Wounded
Hymnal 168 & LEVAS 36
It may seem odd to sing a hymn about Jesus’ crucifixion in early September, Lent being months away, but O Sacred Head Sore Wounded would not be an inappropriate choice for this coming Sunday. The Gospel for this day tells of Jesus teaching his disciples about the suffering he will endure, and the trials and tribulations awaiting those who faithfully follow him. So, even though we are most likely to encounter this hymn during Lent and Holy Week, the gospels speak of the cross throughout the liturgical year.
The author of the text is unknown. Some have associated it with Bernard of Clairvaux or Arnulf of Louvain, Benedictine monks of the 11th and 12th centuries, but there is no scholarly consensus. Regardless, the five stanzas in our hymnbooks are only half of the stanzas in the original Latin poem, which is itself one component of a larger seven-part work. The text articulates grief for the crucified Christ and the desire to gratefully share in his suffering. The first two stanzas address Jesus’ defilement, torture, sorrow, ugliness and weakness, and end with affirmations of his splendor and luminosity. Stanza three speaks of the desire to apprehend the Paschal Mystery, i.e. life out of death, light out of darkness. The concluding stanzas are pleas to love Jesus eternally and to enlist his aid as death approaches; and they feature images of friendship which lend a personal and intimate tone to the hymn.
The tune by Hans Leo Hassler was later reworked and harmonized by J.S.Bach, whose stately and deliberate procession of chords give the music its deep solemnity. The melody of the first two lines of each stanza begins low and ascends, the melody of the last two lines starts high and descends; this construction highlights the eternal tension between hope and despair. Some four hundred years later new and different music was written for the text by David Hurd (b. 1950), a New York City based composer and organist, and was published in a collection of mostly African American hymns known as LEVAS (Lift Every Voice and Sing). Hassler’s tune is a product of European musical tradition, but Hurd’s new music incorporates American elements of the Blues and Gospel, stretching chords and straddling major and minor tonalities to heighten the emotional content of the text.
Here is an example of the Bach setting:O sacred head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded with mocking crown of thorn;
what sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor the hosts of heaven adore!
Thy beauty, long desired, hath vanished from our sight;
thy power is all expired, and quenched the light of light.
Ah, me! for whom thou diest, hide not so far thy grace,
show me, O love most highest, the brightness of thy face.
In thy most bitter passion my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, we’ll-beloved, yet thank thee for thy death.
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine for ever! and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee.
My days are few, O fail not, with thine immortal power,
to hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour;
that I may fight befriended, and see in my last strife
to me thine arms extended upon the cross of life.