STLT#265, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

Live from New Orleans – it’s Hymn by Hymn with Friends! Today’s guest is my delightful new friend Karen Eng.

Karen and I met way too early after a long but wonderful opening worship last night. We sang the hymn, and then our conversation devolved into a wide ranging discussion about how the hymnal is our sacred text. After all, as she pointed out, we don’t use any one source, but rather collection from many – and our hymnal is in fact printed evidence of that collection. And more, the fact that we have two supplements – one of songs and one of readings – is further evidence of the truth we hold, that revelation is not sealed.

Our conversation – which, I am sorry to say, was not recorded – then veered toward questions of what a new hymnal commission might do. Will they add a lot more of the new music we’re getting from our UU Musicians Network composers? Will we continue to challenge the languages of oppression and discrimination without diluting the strong and powerful theologies from our sources? Will we keep singing A Mighty Fortress and this hymn as evidence of the history of our living tradition? So many questions that a new hymnal commission – whenever it happens – will have to address.

But on to the hymn. Karen and I didn’t actually talk much about the hymn itself, so I am taking a few moments now to do so. Here are the lyrics as printed:

O sacred head, now wounded,
with grief and shame bowed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thy only crown:
how art thou pale with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Let me be thine forever.
And, should I fainting be,
oh, let me never, never,
outlive my love to thee.

I admit taking a double take when I got to the second verse; I’m used to a verse that goes something like this:

My Lord, what you did suffer
was all for sinner’s gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but yours the deadly pain.
So here I kneel, my Savior,
for I deserve your place;
look on me with thy favor
and save me by your grace.

Yet when I looked it up on Hymnary, the three common verses include this one, yes, but also the two we use. And yes, we have a shift in lyrics in verse one – the received English translation is much more unsavory: “Yet, though despised and gory,
I claim you as my own”… so I rather like our lyric.

And as this is an English translation of a German translation of a Latin text, who the heck knows anymore?

What I do know is that this is a classic Good Friday hymn, and I am glad we include it – it’s a haunting tune that captures layers of meaning.

Finally, some of you may notice that parts of this tune seem somewhat familiar in a different context; Simon and Garfunkel used a variation of this tune for the song “American Tune” – fascinating, eh? Here’s Paul Simon singing it two years ago on Stephen Colbert:

Our featured image today is the crown of thorns plant – a brilliant suggestion by my brilliant colleague, the Rev. Suzanne Fast, who is hanging out with me while I dash this off and who indulged my search for the Paul Simon video.

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