A Journey of Devotion – O Sacred Head

I’m posting the YouTube video way up here at the top of the post, so that perhaps you can hit play, and then scroll down and listen to the music w/o necessarily watching the video.

{ok, hit play now, then scroll down and let the song keep playing as you read.}


[ok. scroll down.]









For some reason, I can’t post audio to this account, but I can embed YouTube videos. This particular one uses images from the film The Passion of the Christ, a film which I did not see (quite intentionally) and I don’t want to presume that any of you, either, want to see a filmmaker’s interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion every time Holy Week rolls around. [I have no problem with the fact that this film was made. I’m just a very visual creature, and I know that the images would stay with me forever in a way that might not be helpful].

However, this particular video has Fernando Ortega‘s recording of our hymn for today, and it was worth it to me to risk posting these images in order for you to hear his song.


Phwew. That was a really long disclaimer.


The Lenten way continues its forward journey toward Palm Sunday… then Passion week – step by step, the Lord’s love on display – and the failure and betrayal of the crowds around every corner of the final week of the earthly life of Jesus. The crowd, by the way, well, that’s you. And that’s me. Just FYI.


Today’s hymn of devotion is a very familiar one to readers of every denominational stripe – I sang it as a Chreaster ELCA Lutheran [different translation, very similar in tone], a mega-church Evangelical, and now as a liturgy-loving Episcopalian. That it could cross such wide denominational lines and be published in so many ‘kinds’ of hymnals is testimony to the import of the text, I think, and its marriage to such a timeless, singable melody.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded is based on a long medieval poem attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘Salve mundi salutare’. This poem talks about Christ’s body, as he suffered and hung on the cross. It has seven sections, each addressing a part of Jesus’ body-his feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. Our hymn is a translation of the seventh section ‘Salve caput crucentatum’, focused on Jesus’ head.


O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

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.


Things I wish….


….that hymns weren’t being phased out of the church. Our culture emotes very well – to songs about us. Don’t believe me? Count how many times you sing ‘I’ in church next Sunday. Silly, I know. But cumulatively, it matters. I love those songs too, but a steady diet of them… well, it remains to be seen what the outcome will be. But to stop singing this, and songs like it, seems more than a shame to me. It seems a disaster.

….that at least once a year we’d sing all of these verses – anywhere. somewhere. please.

….that, when my last hour of this earthly life draws nigh, I would have the capacity to think of this text …


Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

My, oh my. 


….that I would take the time to contemplate. I make excuses instead of contemplations. I believe a hymn text like this can only be borne of a contemplative life. There’s a reason this text is by Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a mystic. Mystics might have been a little theologically out to lunch in SOME ways, but at the end of the day, I think they’re on to something. Like Bernard, here. He made space for greatness.


The first time I heard Fernando’s recording of this song was, actually, the first time I ever heard Fernando. It was the summer of 1996, and I was working at a little Bible church as a worship director. I had just graduated from college, and was also raising support for my part-time InterVarsity staff work. I was on I-94 near Racine heading South [which, as all Wisconsinites know, is actually labeled East] listening to Moody Radio. This lovely version of ‘O Sacred Head‘ that you’ve been enjoying began and I was smitten quite quickly. By the second verse, my jaw was dropped. But the magic moment for me was the key change from C to Eb using the most surprising, but not jarring, transition on the opening measure of the final verse – what sounded like a simple altered melody note was actually the leading tone to a new key – and that was the moment in which I had to pull over, because the reaction I was having in the car was not safe for highway speeds. I remember staring at the radio of my 1985 Escort Hatchback and saying aloud ‘He plays the way I think!’ I have never forgotten that moment, for it is one of only two times when a song on the radio made me pull over in response to its beauty and, I believe, as a moment of the quickening of the Holy Spirit in my life. For reals. (The other, by the way, was Sara Groves – the first time I heard Generations. Highway 41, heading south near the windmills…… )


Words: Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153 (Salve caput cruen tatum); translated from La­tin to German by Paul Gerhardt, 1656 (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden), and from Latin to Eng­lish James W. Alexander, 1830.

Music: Passion ChoraleHans L. HasslerLust garten neuer teutsch er Gesäng, 1601; harmony byJohann S. Bach, 1729 (MIDIscore).

13 thoughts on “A Journey of Devotion – O Sacred Head

  1. Beautiful. Amazing.

    I love the precious hymns. We sing 80% hymns in our church. They are so rich and deep and full of Truth.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    I haven’t seen the movie either and didn’t watch. Only listened.

  2. Very thoughtful, very good…thank you, Steph. Thank you, Fernando. But why, does WordPress suggest Top Ten Reasons Why I Dislike Breastfeeding as a possibly related post?
    Love you, Friend!

  3. Alice! Same thing happened to me. I thought–Jesus never breastfed, and neither did Fernando as far as I know…


    Still and all, it was a beautiful post. I will have to re-listen when it’s quieter around here.

    I could not agree more about the “I” focused songs. We’ve had a hymn revival lately, but of course we have to insert a repetitive, shallow and I-centered chorus just to make sure we don’t get too contemplative.

    My desire to be faithful to a church family is always at war with my desire to be in a more liturgical, hymn-based setting. Preaching rocks the house and the kids programs are great…but if we are not reaching the heart of worship, does that matter.

  4. Sorry to make you almost spit your soda pop. And really sorry to detract from your post!
    I agree so much with what you wrote. I can’t watch that film either.
    And the “I” songs. When I used to lead worship (years ago) that was the first thing I did, discarded songs with 1st person pronouns in the titles. It’s not about us and how we feel, it’s about Him, it’s about Who He is. He alone is worthy to be praised. I miss the hymns too. We are so me centered that we are more comfortable bringing it back to us, which is okay as a response, but first need to focus properly on Who He is. Schoen recently reminded us that Clairvaux also wrote “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee”

  5. Oh the key change just gives me the goosebumps!

    Girl, you are my kindred spirit. I have had those moments with music where I can see every detail of the geography, the place where everything stood still, as it were, while the music exploded in my head.

    I am going to do all in my power to sing all twelve verses in our church this month. I wish…oh how I wish…we had a Good Friday service. Even a Maundy Thursday service. Years ago we did a Tenebrae service but it was really foreign to our (non-liturgical) sensibilities.

    I have to think how to arrange it (a couple of key transitions?) so it doesn’t drag. We sing St. Patrick’s Breastplate which has ten verses, so we’re not unfamiliar with long songs.

    Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    And isn’t it just like life? Something contemplative, mystical, and moving. And the next moment there is a freaky link to disliking breastfeeding and Diet Coke spitting! It keeps us on our toes!

  6. Steph:

    I am sitting here sighing. The music touches my heart and watching the video just reassures my faith in Him; my love for Him, and I always think….Oh Lord, look what you have done for us, so unselfishly. I guess that is what impressed me so much the first time I went to Stations of the Cross and they did the “Everyman’s Way of the Cross”….it was such an emotional experience…it made me stop and think and be ever, ever so thankful; and be in complete awe and wonder of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.
    Thank you for sharing this with us. You touch my heart.

    Ruth Ann

  7. I feel like a radio talk show caller – “Steph – I’m a long time listener – first time caller – love your show uh blog”.

    The title cracked me up. I loved it. (Hyfrydol. Discuss.) Brilliant. Just brilliant.

    Thanks too for the lenten play list. I look forward to spending some time and money downloading some new titles.

    I’m still laughing at your title . . . what is it about that tune – other than the fact that its Welsh! – that makes it have such staying power? And why is it that I return to it often – even in my “I’m-just-going-to-sit-at-the-piano-and-play-something-moments”. The things that now you have made me ponder. Thanks friend.

  8. Really, how can there be any words after reading and listening to such a rich hymn?

    Hymns like this take me back to my childhood church roots and you know, it makes me feel sad. Evangelicals really do seem to miss the boat in their lack of talking much about Lent or singing so few hymns anymore.

    Thank you for sharing you thoughts, Steph…..

    Tammy ~@~

  9. I love this hymn Steph and I’m so glad you shared this beautiful version with us. (I, like Janet, just listened. I’ve never seen the movie and don’t wish to either.) Just listening is immensely moving.

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