O Sacred Head Sore Wounded


THE events of Good Friday are well known, but almost too terrible to relate. Faced with religious elders and a hostile crowd wanting Jesus executed on charges of subverting the nation, opposing taxes to Caesar and making himself a king, the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, abandons the courage of his convictions and hands him over to the mob to prevent a riot.

Jesus, who has already been viciously flogged, is made to carry the cross to which he will be nailed to the crucifixion site on a hill called in Hebrew Golgotha, ‘the place of the skull’, or Calvary in Latin. When he collapses under its weight a man named Simon of Cyrene is told to carry it for him.

At Calvary Jesus is crucified, along with two thieves. His agony lasts six hours. During the last three hours on the cross, darkness falls over the country. Near the end, Jesus cries, ‘Eli, Eli, lam sabachthani?’ ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Not long after he cries out again: ‘It is finished. Into your hands I commend my spirit.’

As he dies, there is an earthquake, tombs break open and the curtain in the Temple is torn from top to bottom. The centurion on guard at Calvary declares: ‘Truly, this was the Son of God!’

A rich man called Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower of Jesus, asks Pilate for permission to take charge of the body.

He and another man named Nicodemus take it down from the cross, wrap it in linen with spices including myrrh, and carry it to a tomb carved out of rock which Joseph has reserved for himself. They lay it in the tomb and roll a massive rock against the entrance.

The chief priests and Pharisees are still uneasy and tell Pilate that Jesus had prophesied that he would rise from the dead on the third day. They ask Pilate to arrange for the tomb to be guarded so that Jesus’s followers cannot steal the body to make it seem that he had risen.

Pilate details a squad of soldiers to seal the stone and to post guards around the tomb.

And so, it seems, the story ends . . .

The words of the Good Friday hymn O Sacred Head Sore Wounded originate in a long Latin poem believed to have been written by Arnulf of Leuven (c1200-1250), a Belgian abbot. Salve mundi salutare is a cycle of seven cantos each addressed to a part of Jesus’s crucified body. The last part, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ’s head, and begins ‘Salve caput cruentatum’ (‘Hail, bloodied head’).

The whole poem was translated into German in or before 1656 by the Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676). The closing section became a hymn in its own right beginning ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ (‘O head, full of blood and wounds’) and first appeared in Johann Crüger’s hymnal Praxis pietatis melica in 1656.

The first English translation was made in 1752 by John Gambold (1711–1771), a vicar in Oxfordshire. It begins, ‘O head, so full of bruises.’ An American Presbyterian minister and theologian, James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859) reworked it in 1830, beginning ‘O sacred head, now wounded’, and this became widely used in 19th and 20th century hymnals.

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 ’til now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call thee mine.

2 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 Savior!
‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor,
vouchsafe to me thy grace.

3 What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest Friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.

In 1899 the English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930), who later became Poet Laureate, made a fresh translation from the original Latin, beginning ‘O sacred Head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn.’

This is the version used in the Church of England’s New English Hymnal (1986) and several other later 20th century hymn books.

1 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 deflow’r?
O countenance whose splendor
The hosts of heav’n adore!

2 Thy beauty, long desired,
Hath vanished from our sight:
Thy pow’r 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.

3 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, well-beloved,
Yet thank thee for thy death.

4 What language shall I borrow
To thank thee, dearest friend,
For this thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever!
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for thee.

5 My days are few, O fail not,
With thine immortal pow’r,
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.

The music for the German and English versions of the hymn was written by Hans Leo Hassler around 1600 for a secular love song, ‘Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret’ (‘My feelings are confused’), which first appeared in print in 1601.

This is it:

Johann Crüger appropriated and simplified the melody for Gerhardt’s German hymn in 1656.

Seventy years later J S Bach (1685-1750) arranged it, changing the rhythm somewhat, and used five stanzas of the hymn in four different settings in his St Matthew Passion, written in 1727.

Here they are conveniently collected on one video:

Finally, a couple of versions of the hymn itself. This is Robert Bridges’s translation sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

I also like this rendition of the Waddel Alexander words by Michael Eldridge, whom I discovered thanks to a TCW reader.

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