“O Sacred Head”

"And when they had woven a crown of thorns, they put it upon His head…and smote Him on the head" (Matt. 27.29-30)

     INTRO.: A hymn which reminds us of the suffering that Jesus experienced during and after the time when the crown of thorns was placed on His head is "O Sacred Head" (#136 in Hymns for Worship Revised). The text is based on a Latin hymn, "Salve caput cruentatum," taken from a lengthy medieval poem Rhythmica Oratio beginning "Salve mundi salutare," having its roots in twelfth-century monastic life. It has traditionally been dated around 1150 and attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153). More recent research questions this and suggests that the actual author may have been a later writer, Arnulf von Loewen (1200-1251). The earliest manuscript is from the fourteenth century, around 1350. Some think that Bernard may have written earlier parts of the poem and Arnulf the latter, or that Arnulf may have based his poem on meditations by Bernard. Others just consider it anonymous. The hymn was translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, who was born at Grafenhainichen in Saxony, near Wittenberg, Germany, on Mar. 12, 1607, the son of a burgermeister.

     Gerhardt was educated at the Elector’s school in Grimma and at the University of Wittenberg. In 1642 he went to work as a tutor to the family of Andreas Barthold, an attorney in Berlin, where he became acquainted with Johann Cruger (1598-1662). Cruger was music director at St. Nicholas Church. At the age of 44, Gerhardt became a Lutheran minister, serving first at Mittenwalde and in 1655 marrying Barthold’s daughter Anna. Since he had begun to write hymns during his stay in Berlin, many of them, including this translation in ten stanzas, were included in the Praxis Pietatis Melica published by Cruger in 1656. Then in 1657, Gerhardt returned to Berlin where he began an eleven year stay at St. Nicholas, renewing his association with Cruger. His wife died in 1668, and after that he moved to the church at Lubben, Germany, where he remained until his death on May 27, 1676. During his life, he produced a total of 123 hymns.

     The English translation of eight stanzas was made from Gerhardt’s German translation by a Virginia-born Presbyterian minister and professor at Princeton University, James Waddell Alexander (1804-1859). It was first published in 1830 in Joshua Leavitt’s The Christian Lyre. In various books, Alexander’s text has been much altered, with certain lines moved to different positions. The tune (Passion Chorale) was composed by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). It originally appeared in his Lustgarten neuer Deutscher Gesang published in 1601 at Nurnberg and was set to a secular love song, "My heart is distracted by a gentle maid." Cruger was the first to adapt it as a setting for Gerhardt’s translation, and it has been associated with this hymn ever since in both German and English. The modern harmonization was made by Johann Sebastian Bach (1658-1750). It was done in 1729 for his St. Matthew Passion.

     Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, two stanzas of the text appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) edited by E. L. Jorgenson, and both the text of two stanzas, though slightly altered, and tune appeared in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 also edited by Jorgenson; and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 edited by L. O. Sanderson.  This same version has been used in most of our other books since then, including the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; and the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; as well as Hymns for Worship and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat. The 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand has three stanzas. Most older denominational books give five stanzas, as indicated below.

     The hymn emphasizes the great sacrifice that Jesus made by His death.

I. Stanza 1 tells what the eye sees–the wounds, the look of pain, the crown of thorns, and the gore.
"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."
 A. In the death of Christ we see the grief that He suffered when He was wounded for our transgressions: Isa. 53.1-5
 B. He who wore the crown of thorns deserved to wear the eternal crown of heaven: Rev. 19:11-12
 C. All of this suffering is contrasted with the victim’s former beauty to show that Jesus, the just, suffered for the unjust: 1 Pet. 3.18

II. Stanza 2 speaks of the shame that Jesus experienced in His death
"O noblest brow and dearest, In other days the world
All feared when Thou appearest; What shame on Thee is hurled!
How art Thou pale with anguish, With sore abuse and scorn;
How does that visage languish Which once was bright as morn!"
 A. The brow upon which those thorns were placed belonged to the very Creator of the world: Jn. 1.1-3
 B. Yet, this one who created everything was willing to suffer the shame of the cross: Heb. 12.1-2
 C. Our hearts are made sad as we read of the sore abuse and scorn that Jesus received on the cross, yet we know that it was necessary for our salvation: Matt. 27.39-43

III. Stanza 3 gives the reason for this horrible scene
"What Thou, my Lord, has 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."
 A. The Bible definitely teaches that Jesus suffered on the cross: Heb. 12.12, 1 Pet. 2.21-23
 B. Yet, it was for our gain because He died for us and for our sins: Rom. 5.8, 1 Cor. 15.1-3
 C. He did this so that we might be saved by His grace: Eph. 2.5-10

IV. Stanza 4 expresses the impossibility of adequate thanksgiving for such a gift
"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."
 A. Certainly, because of what He has done, Jesus Christ deserves our undying thanks: 1 Tim. 1.12
 B. While the condescension of Christ cannot be fully extolled in human language, it does call forth bowing the knew and confessing with the tongue: Phil. 2.5-11
 C. This is one way that we show our love for Him: 1 Pet. 1.7-8

V. Stanza 5 concludes with a request for Christ to be with us throughout life
"Be near when I am dying, O show Thy cross to me;
And for my succor flying, Come, Lord, to set me free;
These eyes, new faith receiving, From Jesus shall not move;
For he who dies believing, Dies safely, through Thy love."
 A. Unless the Lord comes first, we must die: Heb. 9.27
 B. Yet, even in death, we can keep our eyes on Jesus and glory in His cross: Gal. 6.14
 C. Therefore, we can die with hope rather than fear, because Jesus died for us and will succor us even in death: Heb. 2.14-18

     CONCL.: While this hymn comes from a medieval, monastic background with the monk’s contemplation of Christ’s suffering, there is still spiritual value to be derived from it today. As the goal of the monks, though perhaps misguided in their efforts, was the same as what ours should be, to seek a deeper relationship with Christ, it will help us to realize the great price paid by our Savior to redeem our souls. We praise the dying love of Jesus and acknowledge our boundless debt to Him as we sing, "O Sacred Head."


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