What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners gain: mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
- Bernard of Clairvaux
If you thought the Advent season wasnt long enough to sing all your favorite Christmas carols, look in the index of your church hymnal and try to count all the options for Lent.
There are 24 hymns beginning with the word Jesus in mine, plus 15 listed under Christ, and dozens more, like Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine or In the Cross of Christ I Glory, with one of these names or a synonym - Savior, Lord, Son of God, etc. - in the title.
With just under a month left until Easter, there isnt time enough to sing or even think about all the hymns someone labored to compose, and others decided to publish and pass down to us. But Id like to highlight a few, examining the words, identifying the writers, and telling how each hymn came to be written.
As a church musician, my worship experience is often increased by taking time to study the words and history of a favorite hymn. But even if your only contact with sacred music comes from a few moments each week in your church pew, perhaps some of these stories will increase your understanding of our Lords sacrificial death, which we ponder during the season of Lent.
The text of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded was written nearly 900 years ago during one of the worst periods in human history. That the author, Bernard of Clairaux, could write such a beautiful text during these Dark Ages when even the church was filled with corruption, is part of the miracle of this hymn.
Although Bernard was born into French nobility, he abandoned his privileged life and became one of the most influential monks in all Europe. His preaching was said to have turned the most vicious men to a life of faith, and from his ministry came the founding of 162 monasteries. Four centuries later another famous monk, Martin Luther, would say of Bernard, He loved Jesus as much as anyone could; he was the best monk who ever lived.
Bernard was also one of the best writers of his day, authoring many books about his faith and the church, and becoming a well-known poet. Several of his poems, including Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee, Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded, later became hymns. It would take the era of Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the revival of hymn singing in German Lutheran churches before this latter poem was set to music, and the talents of the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach before the simple melody was harmonized for choral use.
Most hymnals include only three of Bernards original 10 or more stanzas, but even in the basic three, the authors sense of the physical suffering of Jesus is very clear. When he speaks of our Lords wounded head in the first verse, he does not mean the mental agony of exchanging his protected life in heaven for that of abusive earth, but the actual pain of a crown of thorns thrust scornfully into his tender flesh. When Bernard describes Jesus on the cross as despised and gory, we understand that crowning to be an act of hatred and derision, and the aftermath of those sharp, pyracantha-like thorns a gory sight, indeed.
Few Christians can sing these sacred words without at least some understanding of the agony of the crucifixion. Bach made this chorale (hymn) the centerpiece of his oratorio, The Passion According to St. Matthew, and Paul Gerhardt, who translated the original Latin text into German, found solace in his suffering Lord. Gerhardt had recently suffered the deaths of his wife and all four of their children. The following verse speaks loudest to me:
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.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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