New Arrangements: O Sacred Head Now Wounded
O Sacred Head Now Wounded is a very old hymn, the oldest of any that we’ve looked at during this season of Lent. The hymn is based on an ancient poem – written in probably the 13th century, possibly by Arnulf of Leuven, a medieval poet, abbot of a Cistercian Abbey in Belgium, ascetic, although the poem’s authorship is not totally clear. The original poem, called Salve Mundi Salutare, Hail, Salvation of the World, in Latin, was a tribute to the parts of the body of Christ – starting with his feet, then knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and finally, his face. The poem was divided into seven cantos, or sections, with each section focusing on a different part, ending with the head of Christ. This last section became the inspiration for the hymn we know today. Listen to the translation of the Latin of this canto:
Hail, bleeding Head of Jesus, hail to Thee! Thou thorn-crowned Head, I humbly worship Thee! O wounded Head, I lift my hands to Thee; O lovely Face besmeared, I gaze on Thee; O bruised and livid Face, look down on me!
Hail, beauteous Face of Jesus, bent on me, Whom angel choirs adore exultantly! Hail, sweetest Face of Jesus, bruised for me-- Hail, Holy One, whose glorious Face for me Is shorn of beauty on that fatal Tree!
All strength, all freshness, is gone forth from Thee: What wonder! Hath not God afflicted Thee, And is not death himself approaching Thee? O Love! But death hath laid his touch on Thee, And faint and broken features turn to me.
O have they thus maltreated Thee, my own? O have they Thy sweet Face despised, my own? And all for my unworthy sake, my own! O in Thy beauty turn to me, my own; O turn one look of love on me, my own!
In this Thy Passion, Lord, remember me; In this Thy pain, O Love, acknowledge me; The honey of whose lips was shed on me, The milk of whose delights hath strengthened me Whose sweetness is beyond delight for me!
Despise me not, O Love; I long for Thee; Condemn me not, unworthy though I be; But now that death is fast approaching Thee, Incline Thy Head, my Love, my Love, to me, To these poor arms, and let it rest on me!
The holy Passion I would share with Thee, And in Thy dying love rejoice with Thee; Content if by this Cross I die with Thee; Content, Thou knowest, Lord, how willingly Where I have lived to die for love of Thee.
For this Thy bitter death all thanks to Thee, Dear Jesus, and Thy wondrous love for me! O gracious God, so merciful to me, Do as Thy guilty one entreateth Thee, And at the end let me be found with Thee!
When from this life, O Love, Thou callest me, Then, Jesus, be not wanting unto me, But in the dreadful hour of agony, O hasten, Lord, and be Thou nigh to me, Defend, protect, and O deliver me.
When Thou, O God, shalt bid my soul be free, Then, dearest Jesus, show Thyself to me! O condescend to show Thyself to me,-- Upon Thy saving Cross, dear Lord, to me,-- And let me die, my Lord, embracing Thee! (1)
The poem, a song a loving thanksgiving for the gift of Christ’s life to us, went through several variations and translations, and eventually versions of the hymn began to focus just on the section meditating on Christ’s head. The first English translation of the hymn appeared in 1752, and the version we know and sing today is closest to an 1830 translation by the American Presbyterian minister James Waddel Alexander.
Our scripture text today is from Isaiah 53, one we will hear again on Good Friday. It, too, is a poem, or song, and like our hymn for today, it focuses on the suffering of a messiah. The reading is the last of four poems found in Isaiah (40-55) which are known as Servant Songs because each speaks of a “servant” of God and the people. I don’t know what Isaiah was imagining, exactly, when he penned these words, but Jesus spoke of himself as fulfilling Isaiah’s words, as did the apostles. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. In Acts, when the apostle Philip happens upon an Ethiopian eunuch reading these words from Isaiah 53, Philip tells him that this suffering servant was Jesus.
I will admit to you that I’m not one who often focuses on the suffering of Jesus on the cross as the most important part of Jesus’ life, Jesus’ message to us. When the movie The Passion of the Christ came out nearly 10 years ago now, I was troubled by the reaction to it, the acclaim surrounding it, and it took me some time to figure out why. The gift of Jesus’ life to us on the cross is not the gift of Jesus suffering, not the gift of him experiencing more pain than anyone else ever has. His death isn’t about the manner of his death. Unfortunately, our human condition is such that the suffering we’ve inflicted on one another seems to know no depths, and many have experienced pain beyond our imagining. Jesus’ suffering is not a unique gift to us, experienced by no other. It’s not that Jesus suffered, but that Jesus suffered. Do you hear the difference? The point is not that Jesus experienced suffering, but that Jesus experienced suffering. Our God, rather than being too awesome, too high and mighty to get hands dirty, to mix with us, to go through the trivialities of human life with us, our God became one of us, and Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, suffered, like us, for us, with us.
I’m reminded of a Robin Williams movie called What Dreams May Come that came out when I was in college. I don’t want to outline the whole plot, but basically, in this artistic fantasy of a movie, a man and his children have died, and they find themselves in a beautiful heaven, created of their hopes and dreams and imagination. When the wife and mother dies, though, her grief, even in death, prevents her from joining her children. The husband, Robin Williams’ character, finds her, and tries to bring her back to the beautiful heaven he’s been experiencing, but she cannot be comforted. He can’t pull her out of her despair. Finally, at a loss, he decides that if he can’t take her out of her sadness, he must join her in it, and he sits down to weep with her. Suddenly, his wife is freed from the prison her mind has created, and she can join her husband and children in the paradise that awaits. Theologically, the movie makes a lot of claims I disagree with. But I find that pivotal scene so compelling – it is only by joining her, sitting with his wife, experiencing the pain and sorrow that she’s experiencing, that she can, in turn, finally experience the freedom he knows.
We speak of Jesus as our savior, one who sets us free. Truly, he is. But I think sometimes, we are waiting for Jesus to rescue us out of our lives, to come and snatch us up and away from the trials we face, the suffering, the pain, the confusion, the struggles, the challenges. I think we especially are waiting for that when we personally or as a community try to make sense of senseless violent acts, of the heartache that we experience right in our midst. I think we’re waiting for God to intercede in some supernatural way, take us away from it all. It’s beyond our understanding, but that kind of rescue plan isn’t enough. It doesn’t go deep enough. It doesn’t really free us from anything! Jesus saving us that way – that doesn’t transform our hearts and souls. That doesn’t make us into the new creations God promises. And like the wife in the movie, grieving, I don’t think we’d really believe in that kind of rescue, something that snatched us up out of our lives. Instead, Jesus saves us by coming to sit beside us, walk beside us, suffer and rejoice beside us. God saves us by becoming one of us.
Most of you know that I've been rehearsing these past several weeks to be in our local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. This is something I’ve wanted to do for the past twenty years, since the first time I saw Superstar on stage. It has always been more than a musical for me – it was an avenue, as a teenager, for exploring my faith, deepening my relationship with God, because seeing the events of Holy Week unfold on stage made the gospels come alive for me. I wanted to be a part of it. I wondered how I would react if I had been there, where I would have been in the crowd. Now, being in the show, I have to wrestle with the strangeness of starting out as a townsperson who is cheering Jesus on, and ending up as someone yelling for his crucifixion. What I find most compelling, though, is watching the actor playing Jesus bring Jesus to life on stage. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is the same actor I had a crush on as a teenager that started my love of Superstar to begin with!) As “Jesus” walks through the crowds, whether looking at people who are singing his praise, or people who are begging for healing, or people who are betraying, denying, and deserting him, or people who are sentencing him to death, I see eyes full of compassion, a drive to make us understand and believe God’s love for us. And I find myself again learning from this story, as I understand a little better how Christ saves us by becoming one of us.
Incarnation – what we emphasize at Christmas – God becoming one of us – isn’t just the gift of Christmas. I think that God-with-us is what we experience in the cross, too. God, who became one of us, who would suffer for us, who would sit with us, experience it all with us. Understanding that gift to us is what made the prophet Isaiah write the Servants Songs, write of the Suffering Servant, the text we heard today. Understanding that gift to us is what made Arnulf of Leuven write a poem, meditating on the passion of Christ, what made hymnists over centuries write and rewrite the hymn we study today.
Our task goes beyond understanding, or beginning to understand, how God reaches us by becoming one of us. We are called to do likewise. So often, when we try to reach others – when we try to help people through struggles, when we try to serve, when we try to give, when we try to be in mission and ministry, we forget to follow the example of Jesus. We try to reach down, and pull others up, make them like us. We try to make ministry and service something we offer to others, a gift from someone with power to someone without, even when our intentions are the best. Jesus calls us to be in ministry with, to serve with, to experience life with each other, as we are one in the body of Christ, part of one another. Are you willing to sit down beside someone, and be with them in their pain? In their struggles? So that when they rejoice you can be truly with them in joy?
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. O sacred head, now wounded. Amen.