This week marks the final Sunday of Lent and the beginning of a week in which the church contemplates the Passion of Christ. The term “passion” is one we hear tossed about quite frequently – as in, follow your passion or find your passion. It does mean to feel deeply about something, but it actually comes from the Greek word πάσχειν (paschein) which means to suffer.   Appropriate for the symbolism found in the story of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, his agonizing time in the Garden of Gethsemane and his arrest, trial and crucifixion. It’s a story of suffering – a quick fall to the lowest of places.

This hymn is sometimes known as the Passion Hymn. It’s words are based on a medieval poem, usually attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, in which the various verses address the different parts of Christ’s body hanging on the cross. The text we are familiar with comes from the verse speaking of Christ’s head.

O sacred head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, your only crown!
O sacred head, what glory,
what bliss till now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call thee mine.

The music was written by Hans Leo Hassler in 1601 and was harmonized by Bach in 1729. It has been used many, many times in musical commemorations of the Passion story as well as simply as a beautiful tune. Bach arranged five stanzas in his St. Matthew Passion, Liszt included an arrangement in his Via Crucis and Paul Simon’s American Tune is based on this hymn.

There is a difficult beauty to this hymn. The tune is of a stunning loveliness and filled with heartbreaking melancholy. The words are hard to read, harder to sing. This is an emotionally charged work that can stir so much feeling. So many questions. I love this hymn and yet am disturbed by it when I allow myself to take in the words. There is suffering, there is pain, there is guilt, there is confusion and a little anger, and there is love. This example of carrying someone else’s burdens so they don’t have to, is powerful. How can we possibly apply this model to our own lives? I’m not sure, but I suspect that it is necessary to try. What a gift to offer. What a gift to receive.

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.