Monday, September 3, 2012

O Sacred Head -- Bernard of Clairvaux

He was a monk, that much is certain. But, unlike what I might have thought about the inhabitants of a monastery before, the composer of the Middle Ages’ “O Sacred Head” (perhaps the 12th Century, or alternatively the 13th Century) was not a shrinking, quiet character. Perhaps the poetry was in fact his way of managing an episode in his life that seemed unfair. If the composer was indeed Bernard of Clairvaux, we can examine his life and surmise why he might have written about Christ in this way. On the other hand, Arnulf of Leuven, who lived some 50 years after Bernard, was more obscure. Both were accustomed to an austere life, by choice.

Most hymnologists attribute “O Sacred Head” to Bernard, an assumption that allows some examination of his life and what he was thinking if he wrote the words that have survived for nearly a millennium. “O Sacred Head” was the latter part of a poem written by someone (presumably Bernard, or someone like him) in Latin, someone who was deeply affected by peering closely at Christ’s last days when He was beaten and ultimately executed. In addition to His head, the author reflects on the Messiah’s other body parts, attention most observers would curb, grimacing at the odious brutality of His Passion. The poem’s focus is not unexpected for an ascetic, is it? The derivative hymn’s emphasis also says something about its composer, someone who wanted to draw close to His sacrifice, not turn his head away. Bernard was a man, though a monk, not unfamiliar with human-to-human controversies in his life. Many times Bernard managed conflict, enduring criticism at times as the abbot (chief monk) of the Clairvaux monastery and a significant shaper of the Church’s political and theological life in Europe. Though we know not the particular episode that inspired “O Sacred Head”, Bernard’s many tests no doubt affected him as they would any of us – he would have sought fellowship with someone who could identify with how he felt. Perhaps he threw his arms (figuratively) around Christ, gladly staining himself with his Holy brother’s blood to salve his own wounds.

The hymn’s original 11 verses show the composer felt the need to not only embrace Christ’s gruesome visage, but also deal with his own guilt and respond in an appropriate way. The 11 verses he wrote are most often abbreviated to just two or three in our contemporary hymnals, an unfortunate trend. The first five verses alternate from recognizing Christ’s disgrace to the composer’s guilty conscience, but the last several show Bernard’s response finally was loyalty, a persistent fidelity he feels the need to express in not just one or two verses, but in six. Perhaps that’s what happens when you’re a monk, given the time to dwell on Him – you cannot change what happened to Him, but you’re drawn magnetically toward Him. Maybe we should sing all 11 verses sometime, huh?   

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

See this site for biography on composer:

See this site for all 11 original verses:

See this site for history of the hymn:,_Now_Wounded

See this site for an alternative composer/author of the poem from which the hymn was drawn:

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