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1 O sacred head

O sacred head sore wounded; talk by Evan McWilliams, summary awaiting proof checking.  Listen again via Spalding Baptist

Introduced by Frances Ballantyne, Evan noted that the hymn was seldom sung, often appearing just once each year on Good Friday. We might benefit from singing it more often because its content and emphasis go to the very heart of what we believe and proclaim as Good News. It is a profound meditation in which the moment of crucifixion is re-presented before us in a way that echoes the commemoration and re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in the communion service. His talk covered three areas:
Historical context
Theological content and
Personal application to our lives and our experiences.

Evan outlined its authorship by Paul Gerhardt, seventeenth century Lutheran minister, with its roots back in medieval period. A hymn very much like it was attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091).  By the twelfth century when he was very active in the foundation of the Cistercian Order, Christ’s passion had come to be understood as the most significant event in salvation history, some would argue even overshadowing the incarnation and resurrection.  Anselm of Canterbury, a contemporary of Bernard, understood Christ’s death as making reparation to God for humanity’s besmirching of God’s honour.  For Anselm, God’s means of restoring a right relationship between himself and humanity was anchored in the death of his incarnate Son.  God making amends with God – because we’re unable to do so. To meditate on this wonderful mystery of salvation is one of the holiest acts of Christian devotion.

It was this meditation on the Passion of Christ, on the cross as an instrument of salvation, on the physical body of Christ as the sacrifice of reconciliation, that lead later medieval writers into vigorous flights of imaginative piety, poems and songs which speak to the reader from the cross and convinces – sometimes even demands their repentance and worship.

Our speaker read extracts from the fifteenth century poet John Lidgett and John Skelton, describing how Jesus showed forth his wounds in an attempt to invoke the passion of the reader.

The late medieval climate both in England and on the Continent was immersed in effective piety of this type.  Highly educated lay people as well as the barely literate were aware of prayers to the various body parts of Jesus hanging on the cross and with the indulgences attached to praying particular prayers before an image of the crucified, ‘Behold the wood of the cross upon which hung the world’s salvation’ is a phrase still proclaimed in Holy Week in many churches.

The devotional background of seventeenth century Germany lay in this kind of deep experiential understanding of the suffering of Christ and his ability to empathise with human experience.  The historian Johann Weissinger believed that the emotions of medieval life were amplified due to the brevity of human life; the average age was just 35 years in the thirteenth century.  The daily contrast between rich and poor, peace and violence, ugliness and beauty would have been notable. You became an adult before 15 and prepare to die before 40.

By the seventeenth century, not much had changed for many people. Europe’s constant round of war and plague made a suffering saviour profoundly relevant to daily life.  The tradition of popular piety that had been propagated in the late middle ages largely continued through the Reformation. With the removal of the cult of saints  and that of the blessed virgin, the passion began to carry the weight of those things as well.  The Reformers rightly wanted Jesus to be lifted up; the medieval practice of holding a crucifix before the eyes of the dying morphed into a description – an image through words, in preaching and words accompanied by music in the form of hymns and later chorales.

Despite their disagreements on particulars, both the Lutherans on the continent and the Anglicans sought to ensure that people knew Jesus, not only as the saviour of the world but also the saviour of you and of me.  They sought to draw out love on the basis of Christ’s suffering - for me - in my place.  Substitutionary atonement often gets a bad wrap these days but historically it was based on a real need for individuals to know Jesus as their redeemer particularly.  The nails were for you, the crown of thorns you deserved, the pain of the whip and the slow death by suffocation you will never have to feel because Jesus has felt it for you.  No matter what life throws at you, you will never have to suffer ultimate torment because Christ has done it on your behalf.  Contemporary sympathies may revolt, but we cannot fault the desire to make Christ real and meaningful in the midst of an incredibly painful world.

O Sacred Head sore wounded is intended to be both known intellectually and to be experienced emotionally as, I think, all true hymns should be.  Observing the narrative movement of the hymn, Evan outlined each of the verses:

V1 sets the scene; we gaze upon the face of Jesus on the cross and we wonder how may this be?  How is it that the word incarnate has come to wear a crown of thorns? 

V2 the lament continues; the light of lights is quenched but we may not be quenched

V3 we’re moved to pity and we acknowledge our guilt and we beg that Jesus never turn his face away

V4 acknowledges our union with Christ; we yearn to be united with him and never parted from him

V5 we contemplate the trajectory of our own lives and plead that, united with Christ, we may be supported to our life’s end, that I might die befriended. In a passage recalling the last rites with the crucifix before us, we ask that we may see Christ’s arms extended to embrace us on the cross of life – the instrument of torture is the instrument of our salvation.

It’s a profoundly sensual hymn designed to draw out of the singer an emotional response of love, gratitude and wonder.  It’s an experience profoundly missing in daily life.  Meditating on one’s own death marks this hymn out as one coming from another age.  Sometimes our circumstances force us to ponder our own mortality but more often than not, we ignore and evade attempts to delve beneath our veneer of lively confidence in the everlasting and all-important self. It is difficult to peer into the inner recesses of doubt and questioning that inform a proper emotional response to the reality that we are all, one day, going to die.  Such evasion and willful ignorance has not been the Christian way; the hymn’s author, Gerhardt, believed that the singing of hymns was a significant means of teaching the faith.  Reflecting St Augustine’s dictum that the one who sings prays twice, he understood that through singing we absorb a great deal more than we do simply reading or listening.  Singing helps us to internalise the emotions associated with the lyrics. To sing about the desire to love Jesus for his death is a way by which we come to feel that love.  Affective piety is about drawing out our emotions and channeling them in the right direction.  He was known as a non-controversialist; his preaching and writing scrupulously avoided difficult areas of controversy, maintaining a focus on the commonality between religious camps and upon the unity brought about by faith in Jesus.

A Christ-centred hymn like this was an aid for Christians to come to terms with their faith and its significance for their lives. Thus to sing about Christ’s death, to long to be united with him in that death was a way for people to come to terms with their own eventual death.  To know and to feel that one has already been crucified with Christ, and thus need not fear death, is a tremendous comfort.  Do we respond to O Sacred head sore wounded in this way?  Do most of us even have a conscious awareness of the way in which the things we sing shape our belief and affection?

Reflections on Evan’s own personal piety:
How hard it is to feel that God loves and understands what I’m gong through.  Maybe it’s something about the human condition, our self-contained nature, our instinctive self-protection that keeps us from opening up in ways that would actually help us.  Whatever the cause, honesty about my weakness, my real desires, my feelings about my failures are hard to share.  The difficulties that present themselves with other people are one thing but honesty with God is something else.  I know God already knows me better than I know myself but I still try to keep him out, to clean myself up before I come into his presence.

Singing Gerhardt’s hymn reminds me that I really do have a God who knows what it feels like to be human.  Jesus knows every pain that I could possibly go through; he sympathises with my weaknesses – he has felt them himself.  When I gaze upon the face of Jesus in my mind’s eye, I see my own face transfigured; I see my failures, my misunderstanding, my incomprehension and I see them held, bound up and soothed by the sufferings of Jesus.  Whatever I’m going through now, He’s already been through and already redeemed.

I know that resurrection follows the passion just as surely as morning follows night.  I know that I’m save-able because Jesus was preserved by the Father from death.  If I love him, I’m one with him and have already been raised to life.

There’s a tension in O Sacred Head that goes to the heart of my sin in the light of God’s grace. It’s not too much to say that it was my wrong that put Jesus on the cross – but I don’t thing it’s wrong to say that Jesus willingly went to the cross for me - my sin, his love – both were the cause of his death, both at the root of his coming into the world.  There are times when I’m tempted to magnify my sin, to be overwhelmed by my capacity to think and to say what I shouldn’t, the ease with which I think ill of others, thinking that I’m better or I’m more worthy.  There are times when I’m tempted to ignore the love of Jesus, to think that I need to please him in order to earn his mercy.  I’m tempted to do, and do and do so that I climb the ladder of good works to heaven.  Maybe if I give that little bit more, God will accept me?  .

The glory of the cross is that while my sin is great, there is nothing I can ever do to make Jesus love me more than he does.  Jesus’ love, unlike mine, is unwavering, abundant and indiscriminate.  He loves me because it is in his nature to love.  He loved me so much that he wore a crown of thorns accepted the nails that pierced his hands and feet, opened his side to the spear.  It seem funny to say that I’m aware that my days are few and they pass ever more quickly; when I reach my appointed end, it’ll be the face of Jesus that I see first, the light of light, the love most highest.  He’s been with me all along and never leaves my side, if only I’m able to see him there.

Frances: The power of that hymn has spoken to all of us; time for a pause moment.

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