This is one of the many great Lenten hymns in Lutheran Service Book. The text is attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), a French abbot who was well-known for his sacred poetry. The hymn comes from a larger poem which addresses various parts of Christ’s body while He is on the cross. What we sing is taken from the last part of the poem. Bernard’s original Latin text was translated into German by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), one of the greatest Lutheran hymn-writers. The English translation comes from The Lutheran Hymnal. The tune, HERZLICH TUT MICH VERLANGEN, was written by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), a German composer and organist. The harmonization for this setting of the hymn is by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the great Lutheran Kantor and composer who used this hymn tune many times, including 5 times in his St. Matthew Passion.
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.
“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53: 2b-3) On the cross it appeared that Jesus had failed, for the disciples did not understand His true mission here on earth. Yet in the midst of this seeming defeat, Christ was doing His greatest work, taking the world’s sin upon Him and suffering Hell, a Hell He did not deserve. On this side of the Resurrection we know just what He was doing and so we do indeed take joy in claiming this bleeding Jesus as our own.
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, And grant to me Thy grace.
It was your sin, and mine, that nailed Christ to the cross. Here we see the great exchange, Christ taking our unrighteousness and giving us His righteousness. Thanks be to God we do not get what we deserve all because of Christ’s death for us on the cross.
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 for Thee.
Words fail when we try to thank Jesus for all He has done for us. We simply cling to His promises, such as John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This promise is for you and for me, and so we thank God for all His loving kindness in sending His Son for us.
Be Thou my consolation, My shield, when I must die; Remind me of Thy passion When my last hour draws nigh. Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, Upon Thy cross shall dwell, My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.
Christ’s death on the cross means that our sins are forgiven and His resurrection on the third day means that we too will rise on the Last Day and live with Him forever in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Because of all this, we can go confidently to our grave in the same way we go to our bed. We know that when we die we will leave this vale of tears and be with our Savior, who will receive us into His nail-scarred hands. The devil will try to throw doubts and fears at us when we are dying, but we can hold fast to Christ’s promise that where He is, there we will be also. With our eyes fixed on our Crucified and Risen Lord and Savior Jesus, we can indeed die well.