Hymn Guide: O Sacred Head

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“O Sacred Head” is a deeply moving devotional hymn about the Passion of Christ. It explores and celebrates the paradox that Jesus’ suffering is both ugly, in its external form, and also beautiful, in its salvific love. The hymn is most fitting to be sung during Lent, Holy Week, the Stations of the Cross, alongside funerals, or in times of grief.

Based on a medieval Latin text attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, “O sacred head” was translated into German in 1607 by the Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhart and later into English in 1899 by the Anglican poet Robert Bridges. Remarkably, the hymn retains the influence of each stage in its translation history, combining medieval materiality, reformation individuality, and Victorian sentimentality.

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The tune is instantly recognizable. Originally a German courtly love song by Hassler, it was adapted for the hymn and later harmonized by Bach. In English, the tune is now simply titled PASSION CHORALE.

Verse by Verse

The hymn’s origin is a medieval poem that devoted a stanza to each of Christ’s wounds, beginning with his feet and moving to his head. In the hymn, we begin with Jesus’ head and move down to his face, his heart, and then beneath the cross with those who mourn.

Verse 1

O sacred head, sore wounded,
Defiled and put to scorn:
O kingly head, surrounded
With mocking crown of thorn;
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflow’r?
O countenance whose splendor
The hosts of heav’n adore!

By starting with the wounds on the Lord’s head, we are immediately reminded of Pilate’s soldiers, who scourged Jesus and placed on him a “mocking crown of thorn.” The reference to scorn and sorrow also recalls Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

Note that the final two lines change the mood from sorrow to adoration. This shift is reflected in Bach’s harmonization, which shifts to major key harmonization in the final phrase. Each verse of the hymn takes advantage of this powerful shift.

Verse 2

Thy beauty, long desired,
Hath vanished from our sight:
Thy pow’r is all expired,
And quenched the light of light.
Ah me! for whom thou diest,
Hide not so far thy grace:
Show me, O Love most highest,
The brightness of thy face.

The vanishing of Christ’s beauty is another reference to Isaiah’s servant song: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). But Jesus’ beauty has only vanished in the simple sense of his external wounds.

In a deeper sense, Jesus’s sacrifice of himself for us is the greatest beauty we can behold. His light has been quenched, and yet he is “Love most highest” with “brightness of thy face.”

Verse 3

In thy most bitter passion
My heart to share doth cry.
With thee for my salvation
Upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
To stand thy cross beneath,
To mourn thee, well-beloved,
Yet thank thee for thy death.

How should we respond to the simultaneous ugliness and beauty of the cross? The third verse explores the simultaneous movement of the heart in mourning and in thanks. We mourn because of his “bitter passion.” We give thanks because he died “for my salvation.”

Verse 4

What language shall I borrow
To thank thee, dearest friend,
For this thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever!
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for thee.

In general, this hymn moves from the action of Jesus to the action of the singer in response. The first verse focuses only on Christ. The second and third verses introduce the singer, “me,” and “my heart” as objects moved by Christ.

Now in the fourth verse, the singer is a subject taking action, considering how to show thanks to Christ. “What language shall I borrow / To thank thee…”

The references to language and love recall Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians: “If I speak with the tongues of men or angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Thus, the hymn requests that even if I lack due language, I “never, never / outlive my love for thee.”

Verse 5

My days are few, O fail not,
With thine immortal pow’r,
To hold me that I quail not
In death’s most fearful hour:
That I may fight befriended,
And see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended
Upon the cross of life.

The last verse acknowledges the singer’s limited time frame and imaginatively moves to his own death. This merges our experience as we sing with the experience of Christ on the cross.

But the hymn acknowledges that we do not have Christ’s strength and that we, facing our own deaths, are likely to “quail” or even quit. And so we ask for Christ’s “immortal pow’r, / to hold me.” The arms of Jesus stretched out on the cross are transfigured into “arms extended” to us in our death.

This is the final and the triumphant paradox: that the cross of Jesus’ ugliness and death is, to us, “the cross of life.”

On Video

The first video is sung by the King’s College Choir of Men and Boys, with organ accompaniment. The second, a contemporary rendition with guitar, bass, and drums, is sung by the Norton Hall Band from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Image of a medieval German stained glass, held at the Met Cloisters, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

March 23, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their eight children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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