There’s Nothing Like a Good Old Hymn

During the summer, members of our church have been gathering every Sunday evening to sing hymns and psalms for about an hour. Part of the time is spent learning new selections in four-part harmony (including one of my new favourite psalms – O ‘Twas a Joyful Sound to Hear), with the second part being a time for requested hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. We’ve also been repeating several hymns week to week in order to polish a number of selections for when our congregation sings them during service. One of these that we have sung a few times this summer is Bernard of Clairvaux’s “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” (music arranged by J.S. Bach).

While I’ve been familiar with this hymn for most of my life, recently I’ve been struck at the power of the text, which speaks of Christ’s atonement on the cross and a sinner’s desperate need to cling to the Savior (“Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain/Lo, here I fall, my Savior, ’tis I deserve Thy place/Look on my with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace”). Bach’s arrangement is also absolutely fantastic, and fits the words perfectly – it rings of a mood of “sober joy.”

I’ve been further struck by how long ago the text was written – the poem from which the hymn comes is attributed to Clairvaux in 1153 AD! The words are as true today as they were 1,000 years ago, and were as true then as 1,000 years before that, when Christ atoned for his elect people. Being united with thousands (millions?) of believers over the last 1,000 years who have sung these words is an inspiring and humbling thought. When singing it, we are confessing our Savior with those other believers – how awesome is that? Great hymns like this one also make me wonder what current songs will be sung 1,000 years from now (if Christ doesn’t come back before then of course). It also makes me wonder what songs “from earth” we’ll sing in heaven – if any at all.

I love to read over the words slowly, letting them sink in (words below, italics are the three verses included in the Trinity Hymnal). Lord, I pray with Clairvaux and believers across the world over the last 1,000 years: O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

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.

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.

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,
Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee and flee before Thy glance.
How art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How doth Thy visage languish that once was bright as morn!

Now from Thy cheeks has vanished their color once so fair;
From Thy red lips is banished the splendor that was there.
Grim death, with cruel rigor, hath robbed Thee of Thy life;
Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, Thy strength in this sad strife.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

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.

My Shepherd, now receive me; my Guardian, own me Thine.
Great blessings Thou didst give me, O source of gifts divine.
Thy lips have often fed me with words of truth and love;
Thy Spirit oft hath led me to heavenly joys above.

Here I will stand beside Thee, from Thee I will not part;
O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,
When soul and body languish in death’s cold, cruel grasp,
Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

The joy can never be spoken, above all joys beside,
When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.
O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,
Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!

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 enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

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