O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
The words of this song have gone through many revisions and changed hands many times before coming to us in our English form as we know it today. It is thought to have its roots in twelfth-century monastic life.
The original poem was called “Rhythmica Oratio” by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. His father was a knight and his mother has been said to have been a person of radiant goodness. Bernard chose monastery life while in his early twenties. Martin Luther said of him, “He was the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.”
The original poem had seven parts, with each part discussing various parts of Christ’s body as He suffered on the cross, His feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. Our hymn text is only the seventh portion of the poem, and was originally entitled, “Salve Caput Cruentatum”.
The German translation was done by Paul Gerhardt, a German man who suffered much heartache in his life. He went through the Thirty Years’ War, and while still a young man lost his wife and four baby girls. He is credited with writing 132 hymn texts during his life, which are said to be a reflection of inner spiritual wealth. One person has said, “Many were written under circumstances that would make most men cry rather than sing.”
James Waddell Alexander translated the English version of this song. He was a history teacher, but always had more of an interest in hymnology. He translated many German and Latin texts that were published in a book titled, “The Breaking Crucible and Other Translations.”
Although not much else is known about the history of this song, it has certainly been used of the Lord throughout the years, not only in the lives of these three men, but also in the lives of many more of God’s people. Philip Schaff said, “This classic hymn has shown in three tongues – Latin, German and English – and in three confessions – Roman, Lutheran and Reformed – with equal effect, the dying love of our Savior and our boundless indebtedness to Him.”
~Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
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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