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The Story Behind “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”

This beloved poem is a time-tested resource for Lenten reflection.

03/14/23

John Stonestreet

Glenn Sunshine

Among the many hymns with deep roots in the history of the Church, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” is based on a 900-year-old poem written by theologian and mystic Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was a towering figure in the political, intellectual, and religious life of 12th-century Europe.  

In 1113, Bernard became a member of a new religious order known as the Cistercians. The group followed a strict monastic life of prayer, labor, and austerity. Two years later, he was sent by the order to found a new monastery that he named Clairvaux.  

Bernard quickly became one of the leading reformers in the Church of his day. He participated in Church councils, worked to heal schisms over who was the legitimate pope, helped to found and promote the Knights Templar, and preached the Second Crusade, even convincing King Louis VII of France and Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III to join the expedition. He was also involved in intellectual and theological debates, most notably opposing some of the teachings of Peter Abelard. 

Bernard’s greatest contributions were in the realm of spirituality. While earlier spirituality in Western Europe tended to emphasize Christ’s divinity, primarily portraying Him as a victorious warrior over the powers of Hell, Bernard focused on divine love, particularly demonstrated in the Incarnation and revealed in Christ’s suffering. Jesus’ love for us was so great that He chose to suffer for us, providing forgiveness of sins and identifying with humanity’s weakness and suffering. Thus, from Christ we learn compassion and mercy from both a human and divine perspective. 

To Bernard, the only proper response to God’s love in Christ is to love Him in return and to imitate Him by loving our neighbor. Love was so central to Bernard’s spirituality that Dante portrays him as the one who leads to the highest levels of heaven in the Divine Comedy. 

Bernard’s emphasis on a deeply personal relationship with God built on faith and love anticipated, in many ways, Protestant ideas. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin quoted Bernard in support of justification by faith; Calvin also quoted him in support of imputed righteousness. 

Bernard also promoted lectio divina, an approach to meditation on Scripture designed to help the practitioner hear the Holy Spirit speaking and to increase personal connection with God. He wrote on many other areas of theology as well, particularly about the Virgin Mary. He also wrote extensively on the theology of music and authored many hymns and poems. 

One of Bernard’s poems was the source of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” “Salve Mundi Salutare consists of seven sections, each addressing a part of Christ’s body (specifically, His feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head) as He hung on the cross. Throughout, Christ’s suffering is portrayed as the ultimate expression of divine love, and it calls for a response of love from us in return. 

The season of Lent and Holy Week is an appropriate time to meditate on Christ, His Divine and Human natures, His sufferings on our behalf, the love that prompted them, and what that love has accomplished on our behalf.  

O Sacred Head by Bernard of Clairvaux is a wonderful, time-tested resource to reflect on these realities. 

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. 

2 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,
and grant to me thy grace. 

3 What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest Friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee. 

4 Be near when I am dying,
oh, show thy cross to me,
and for my rescue, flying,
come, Lord, and set me free!
These eyes, new faith receiving,
from Jesus shall not move,
for one who dies believing
dies safely, through thy love. 

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org. 

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