One of our deeply moving Holy Week hymns is “Ah, holy Jesus.” The text was written by Johann Heerman, a 17th century Lutheran pastor and poet, as a translation and paraphrase of a medieval Latin devotion. Anglican poet Robert Bridges, in turn, translated the hymn to English, reducing it from fourteen stanzas to five. Bridges included it in his 1899 Yattendon Hymnal, which had major influence on 20th century hymnody. The tune, by Johann Cruger, was harmonized by Bach and incorporated into his settings of the passion by St. Matthew and St. John.
The first verse sets a tone of lament, opening with “Ah” and closing with “Oh” – the vocalized sigh. It also introduces a contemplative mode, by structuring the opening two lines as a rhetorical question.
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That man to judge thee, hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
Oh, most afflicted.
As we consider the question of how Jesus has offended, we are meant to recognize that he is not being treated justly. Yes, Jesus has offended the sensibilities of the world, of sinners, but he is innocent and has no guilt. If Jesus is not guilty, who is?
Who was the guilty, who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee.
‘Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee.
The crushing answer is that it was me, my treason which has afflicted holy Jesus. Each of us has denied Christ; each of us with our sins has nailed Jesus to the cross. If the first two verses seem dark and gloomy, hope begins to glimmer in the third verse:
Lo, the good Shepherd, for the sheep is offered,
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered,
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heeded,
The shepherd is offered for the sheep, the son for the slave. And this paradox has purpose. It is “for man’s atonement,” a substitutionary sacrifice to achieve reconciliation between man and God. We see God’s love in this, that while we “nothing heeded, / God interceded.” And God did this for each one of us.
For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation,
Thy death of anguish, and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.
Building on the general hope of verse three, verse four makes personal claim to the atonement. In an echo of the Nicene Creed, the incarnation and life and passion of Christ was “for me” and “for my salvation!” And the final verse reflects on how we can respond to this amazing gift:
Therefore kind Jesus since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee.
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
As we conclude our reflection on this hymn, consider the progression in the way the hymn refers to Jesus. In the first verse, he is “Holy Jesus.” In the second verse, he is “Lord Jesus.” These are certainly true. But notice that once we catch a glimpse of his love in the atonement, in the sacrifice of the shepherd for the sheep, then in verses 4 and 5 he becomes “Kind Jesus.” His love inspires us to love and adoration. We cannot pay Jesus back, but we can adore him and commune forever with him.
Below are three versions of the hymn on video. The first video presents the first three verses, sung a cappella by the King’s College Choir from Cambridge, England. An enhanced audio version of the same recording is available here. The second video shows Chris Thile and Sufjan Stevens singing verses one, four, and five, with a live audience, as they close out the show. It shows the power of the hymn, even in a secular setting with minimal piano accompaniment. The final video, from First Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, presents a haunting arrangement by John Ferguson, performed by choir and viola.