As is true for many long favored hymns, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” has a long, complicated, and even somewhat disputed history. The text that we have today went through many hands and translations from the original. In fact, the authorship of the source text is still uncertain. Even so, this hymn has remained a central piece of religious music for hundreds of years, and hopefully it will remain for many more.
There are two men credited with writing the original poem: St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Arnulf of Leaven. Bernard was an abbot from France who lived from 1090 to 1153. He attempted to reform the Benedictine order and ended up forming the Cistercian order. Arnulf, an abbot of the Cistercian order and also from France, was a scholar and poet. He lived in the early 1200’s. The poem in question is known as the Rythmica Oratio, Salve caput cruentatum, and the Salve Mundi Salutare. While Bernard was before considered the author of this seven stanza poem, it is now generally considered to be the creation of Arnulf. However, since no manuscript dating prior to the 1300’s exists, the true authorship may remain a mystery.
As may be assumed by the title, this is a Latin poem. This poem is divided into seven stanzas, or cantos, that speak on different parts of Christ’s body, Clearly, this has been narrowed to the head in the modern hymn, but before it included members from the feet to the face. Even though most of the stanzas are excluded from the modern hymn, the intention of the original – to speak on the suffering of Christ – is not lost in today’s text.
The modern English translation came via the German though Paul Gerhardt. Gerhardt was a Lutheran pastor and a prolific hymn-writer. He not only translated the Latin poem into German but also expanded upon and altered the text. His version, called “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” was first published in 1656 in the Praxis pietatis melica. Another Latin version of this poem was adapted in the Membra Jesu Nostri patientis sanctissma by Diederick Buxtehude. His 1680 composition took the Salve Mundi Salutare and made it into an oratorio, considered the first for Lutheran music. It is composed of the same seven parts of Christ’s body and is a composition too complex to do it justice here.
The text was put to a tune written around 1600. Hans Leo Hassler, a Lutheran composer from a musical family, wrote the song not for the church but for court. It is known as both “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” and the “Passion Chorale”. Hassler was well-known in his time for his composing for the liturgies of both Catholic and Lutheran churches. Bach later took part of this text and Hassler’s tune, which had been simplified for Gerhardt’s hymn, and arranged it for his 1729 St. Matthew Passion. This arrangement with its harmonies was later used in some hymnals.
An English translation of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” was first provided by John Gambold in 1752. But it was the 1830 translation of James W. Alexander, a professor and Presbyterian pastor, that made the hymn a key piece of most English hymnals. His is seemingly the most commonly sung today. Yet these two are not the only translators of this beloved hymn. Among them are Henry Baker, Catherine Winkworth, Robert Bridges, and others stretching into the 20th century. Thus, there is not one English version of this hymn but several. So many, in fact, that there are well more than ten different stanzas to the hymn, though few hymnals carry all of these verses together and typically only have a select few. Because of this, only three verses – which I believe to be among the best known – will be addressed in the following.
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.
While this hymn begins with Christ’s Head, the original poem began with Christ’s feet. The Head was the pinnacle of the poem. So why do we focus on Christ’s sacred Head? Likely because of the image of the crown of thorns instead of a kingly crown. When we picture a king, we image him in stately bearing with a crown of gold. Yet that is not what we describe here. We picture our Savior bleeding from head to foot, starting with a crown of thorns pressed into flesh that He took on for our sake (Matt. 27:28-30, Jhn. 19:1-3). We imagine our King, hanging from a tree, His head bowed in submission before His shearers to become the living sacrifice for us (Isa. 53:3-7). We picture this image because it paints clearly for us the sort of humiliation Christ endured for us (1 Pet. 2:21-25).
He took upon Himself the pain and judgement that was due us so that we did not have to endure that shame, separation, and judgement (Heb. 12:1-3, Isa. 52:13-15). He is our God, our King, our Savior. He went from heavenly glory among the angles to become a baby on earth to die in our place (Phil. 2:5-11, Isa. 53, 1 Tim. 3:16). Thus we do “joy” to call Christ ours because He made us God’s children, redeemed and purified in His sight. It is an ugly image that comes to mind when we picture our Lord suffering that way, but we remember it because His suffering is what made us new (1 Cor. 1:18-25, 11:26, 2 Cor. 5:17).
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.
Our joy is further realized in this verse. What was the purpose of this suffering? How is there any way to find joy in this? We rejoice and are thankful because of what we gained by it. Christ died for sinners, for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6-11). We were the ones who transgressed, who rebelled, who did wrong in the eyes of God (Psa. 51:1-4). This was all our own debt. We deserved the judgement and punishment He received (Isa. 53:4-5). Yet instead of us having to face judgement for what we had done wrong, Christ suffered for us unto death. We did nothing to deserve it, but the “deadly pain” was Christ’s to bear that our debt of sin might be paid for (1 Pet. 2:24, Titus 3:4-7). In this we have joy.
And how do we respond to this gift of life? We can do nothing more but be thankful and rejoice. We recognize that we are undeserving of God’s love and grace, and yet He pours it out on His children generously. Thus, we fall before Him, recognizing our humble state, and ask that He continue to show us grace. He loves us and has promised us His grace and all the riches found in Christ (Rom. 8:15, Eph. 1:7, 2:4-9, 1Pet. 1:3-5, Jhn. 10:27-28).
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.
Previously we recognized that all we can do is be thankful and rest in the mercy and grace of God. But this verse goes one step further, reminding that there is nothing we can do or say that can full match or describe the wondrous gift the Lord has given to us (Psa. 116:12-17). Our lives have been redeemed at the cost of our Lord and Savior. He gave His life for us. How could we thank any person who did that for us, let alone the Christ? There is no language, there are no words we could say to fully thank the Lord for what He has done.
Thankfully, our salvation is not dependent on us! After all Christ died for us while we were powerless, dead, and made us alive (Rom. 5:6-8, Col. 2:13-14, Eph. 1:3-10). Even though our best gifts are but filthy rags, our response for his marvelous gift is to praise, thank, and serve our Lord (1 Pet. 2:1-5). I pause at the last verse because our human love is so fleeting, especially in light of God’s everlasting love and mercy (Jhn. 15:12-14, Psa. 103:13-18, Eph. 3:14-21). But we have every assurance and hope in Christ because of the sacred Head that was wounded, because of His loving sacrifice for us (Lam. 3:21-26, Acts 17:30-31, 2 Cor. 1:20, Heb. 10:19-23).
Blessings to you and yours,
Gildas, Marie. “St. Bernard of Clairvaux.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2.
Henry, Hugh. “Salve Mundi Salutare.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13.