Music for Holy Week: O Sacred Head

There are hymns that speak deeply to us. For me, one of them is O Sacred Head.

This is version (from the 1962 Baptist Hymn Book) that I first encountered (and mostly sing).

o sacred head

It wasn’t a hymn that was much (if at all) sung in the congregations I was part of as a child, even on or around Good Friday, and I only recall encountering it as a late teenager, probably (and perhaps not coincidentally) about the time I was learning about that hugely influential 12th century church figure Bernard of Clairvaux in school history (the Second Crusade). Now it is one of those hymns I could not sing too often, even as congregations I’ve been part of more recently don’t often do. It is one of those hymns that, at this time of year particularly, I find myself singing aloud – perhaps not very loudly – as I walk down the street. Taking the form of a personal prayer, yet it gains strength as we sing together as congregations.

The various hymn book companions I’ve got on my shelves suggest that if there is a direct connection back to Bernard of Clairvaux is, at best, loose. Paul Gerhardt seems to have translated (into German) the final part of a multi-stanza Latin poem dating to at least the 14th century that stepped through seven different parts of Christ’s body, and which was apparently intended to be used on successive days during Holy Week. Commentators suggest that the poem may at least have been inspired by Bernard’s own writings – some of which, with confident attribution – still speak across the centuries. Gerhardt’s German hymn was brought into English in the 19th century by a prominent US Presbyterian minister, with a strong interest in hymnology.

The tune to which the hymn is sung, “Passion Chorale”, has such strong associations with Holy Week music – both this hymn and its use by Bach repeatedly in his “St Matthew Passion” – that it is slightly surprising to learn not only that the tune wasn’t written for purpose, but that it had firmly secular origins, appearing as early as 1601 as the melody to words beginning “My heart is distracted by a gentle maid”. But then why should the devil have all the best tunes (apparently not said by Luther, even if he was very ready to use popular tunes as setting for good, sometimes great, hymns)?

What of the words? In some senses, the first verse is mostly a scene-setter (recall the origins in a sequence of meditations of aspects of body of our crucified Lord) but one that vividly reminds us of the horror and anguish of crucifixion. And done to this “sacred head”, the meaning perhaps dimmed through repetition, but very God.

Verse two goes to the heart of the atoning sacrifice: mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain. Jesus, in some mysterious sense, takes the place each of us deserves. And in that sacrifice the means of grace, expressed here as the prayer for God’s grace and reconciling mercy.

But it is the final two verses that strike deep with me – did so 40+ years ago, and do so now in late middle age. It is the prayer for the grace to persevere, through the vicissitudes of life, the temptations, and (in our age) the decline of faith, the shrinkage of churches, the abandonment of faith by some of those we knew/know who once followed. And death approaches for each of us: if not today, then one day before (in my case) many more decades pass.

Gerhardt’s hymn in the prater for endurance, and that through all the changes scenes of life, our eyes are kept firmly on the cross, and one who embraced it for us and for our salvation. Is it easy? Not always. There are things to pull us away, things to discourage us, but discipleship is the call to the long obedience in the same direction.

This then is my prayer this Holy Week

Be near me when I’m dying

O show thy cross to me


And should I fainting be

Lord, let me never never

Outlive my love to thee.

I thank God for writers of great hymns and songs, and the tunes that accompany them, that touch places in us that mere prose often doesn’t.

On perseverance to the end, having chosen the path of discipleship, I saw this clip this morning.

Elena on Twitter: “The end of the film about Mount St. Bernard Abbey is one of the greatest minutes ever aired on British television” / Twitter

If anyone still knows the hymn I might well suggest to family that O Sacred Head be sung at my funeral. But if all the hymns that spoke deeply were chosen, it would be a long service

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