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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 8 (Good Friday): "O sacred head"

Earlier in the passion story, St Luke tells us that when Jesus had been crucified, “the people stood by, watching”. The leaders “scoffed” and the soldiers “mocked”, but the people just “watched”. I wonder what Luke intends us to see in this crowd of onlookers. Some of them will have shouted Hosanna! on Palm Sunday and others Crucify! a few hours earlier. And no doubt there will have been people who cried both with the same conviction. Crowds are notoriously wayward. Never trust them.
But what if there were those, possibly only a few, who “watched” for a different reason, who wondered why this innocent man was being strung up on a cross, what crime he had committed. What if among the crowd were those who had followed him, who loved him, who were devoted to him? What would they read in the features of the agonised, pain-bearing, crucified Christ at the Place of the Skull? And the criminals being executed on either side of Jesus when there was nothing left to do but gaze around and think their own thoughts: what did they see in this man who shared the final hours of their lives on that green hill?
Our next Good Friday hymn imagines us on that hill of Calvary and asks us the same question: what do we see? O Sacred Head is one the most famous of all the passion hymns. The version we know is a translation of a German hymn that itself draws on a medieval Latin text. Paul Gerhardt, the German author, was a seventeenth century hymn writer, probably the greatest in the Lutheran tradition apart from Martin Luther himself. So well known was the tune that it simply went by the name of the “Passion Chorale”. Many of us learned it not through singing it in church but by hearing Bach’s St Matthew Passion where it features no fewer than five times. 
Gerhardt was famed for the intense devotion of his hymns and the vividness with which they made Christian experience real and alive to the worshipper. If ever congregations learned theology through hymn-singing, it was as true of Reformation Germany as it was of eighteenth century Methodism. And the skill of this hymn is to get us to see what is in front of us as we come to the cross on this holy day. Like There is a green hill, the Passion Chorale doesn’t speculate about the crucifixion. It isn’t interested in metaphysical questions about how God could die, and how this death makes a difference in the cosmic scheme of things. It is concerned simply with faith, trust, gratitude and adoration. Indeed, of all the hymns we sing at this season, this is the most personal and direct. There is a burning, passionate intimacy in Gerhardt’s words. There are only two people who matter: the believer, and the crucified Lord.
Like the people in Luke’s account, Gerhardt watches. But this is more than just looking. This is gazing with a contemplative eye that is fully present to everything that the crucifixion means. He takes it all in and meditates on it: the crown of thorns, the bleeding head, the pallid hue as the colour drains from his features as death draws near. If you have ever waited by the bedside of someone who is dying, you will recognise the language. But this is more than the brilliant depiction of how a life subsides into nothing. In his devotion, the poet sees into what is of eternal importance here. Yet angel hosts adore thee, and tremble as they gaze ­just like this poet, this follower, this lover does.
The middle stanza develops this image of the dying Jesus. Like Grünewald’s Crucifixion on the Issenheim altarpiece at Colmar, or Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ you are not spared the detail. Nor should you be, says the poet. Thy comeliness and vigour is withered up and gone, and in thy wasted figure I see death drawing on. Because of the immensity of this death, because of the love it demonstrates, the least we can do on Good Friday is to gaze on the Saving Victim for a while, learn to love and serve him in his disfiguring, unlovely dying as well as in the beauty we remember.
Here at last is Isaiah’s suffering servant for all to see. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him” says the prophet; there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account”. Except we did; we do; we always shall. O agony and dying! O love to sinners free! Was ever love like this? In his very disfigurement, says the hymn, we can see the form and the majesty of God, and through them, the extent of love poured out to bring us back to ourselves, to remake us as new people, to reawaken us to a vision of life as his followers and friends, and who we could be in the service of this Jesus whom we resolve to love and serve till our lives’ end.
The last verse is a prayer. In this thy bitter passion, good Shepherd, think of me with thy most sweet compassion, unworthy though I be. In the passage from St Luke that we read just now, we hear about the man who made just such a plea to the crucified Jesus. The two criminals on either side of him stand for the two ways with in which we see him. One is to deride him, taunt him or (what comes to the same thing), ignore him, turn our face away. The other is to find ourselves strangely drawn to him.
We may not know why he attracts us so, but we know that only in him shall we find the resolution of all that is conflicted and chaotic in our lives. Listen to the voice of the criminal: “we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then we imagine him turning to Jesus and looking at him – if such a movement is possible in the terrible pain of crucifixion - and pleading: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. And he replies in words generations of believers have treasured down the ages, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.
This is the music I hear in this last verse of Paul Gerhardt’s wonderful hymn. Beneath thy cross abiding, for ever would I rest, in thy dear love confiding, and with thy presence blest. The place Jesus welcomes the penitent thief to is Paradise, that is, a garden. It is where the story of humankind began, and it is where it begins again, in the garden where his body is laid, and where the risen Lord will greet another penitent early on Easter Day, and call her by her name.
Those rhyming words at the end of the hymn – abiding, confiding, rest, blest – yes, I know they are in the English translation, but they sum up so well the sense of trustful resolution and fulfilment that Good Friday and Easter Eve are all about. When the ordeals of this dreadful day are over, the darkness begins to lighten a little. Jesus breathes his last, a peaceful goodnight prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. In the restfulness and peace with which this hymn closes, we know that something has shifted. It will soon be the time when earth’s morning breaks and shadows flee away.
Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.39-43
O sacred head, surrounded
  By crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding head, so wounded,
  So shamed and put to scorn!
Death's pallid hue comes o'er thee,
  The glow of life decays;
Yet angel-hosts adore thee,
  And tremble as they gaze.
Thy comeliness and vigour
  Is withered up and gone,
And in thy wasted figure
  I see death drawing on.
O agony and dying!
  O love to sinners free!
Jesu, all grace supplying,
  Turn thou thy face on me.
In this thy bitter passion,
  Good Shepherd, think of me
With thy most sweet compassion,
  Unworthy though I be:
Beneath thy cross abiding
  For ever would I rest,
In thy dear love confiding,
  And with thy presence blest.
Paul Gerhardt 1607-76 (translated H W Baker 1821-1877)                        
From a 14th century Latin hymn                 


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