Bearing Witness to the Cross of Christ

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Building our life around… upon… the love that God has for us; that is the new life that springs forth in us as we see and understand the horror of the cross.

Sunday of the Passion
April 1, 2012
Mark 15:1-39
Peder Stenslie

We are nearing the end of our long Lenten journey.  Today we hear about the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus.  We reflect on the condemnation and abuse that was heaped upon him; and we meditate on the meaning of his suffering and death.

For numerous reasons, these are not easy things to do.  To assist us today, I’m calling on the help of a very old Christian hymn:  O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

For centuries, this has been one of the most loved and widely sung hymns in the Christian Church.  If you do a search on “YouTube” you will find countless renditions of this hymn.  There’s classical guitar, organ, orchestra, choir, ensemble, even dulcimer and ocarina versions of this hymn.  In a minute, I’m going to ask our musicians to sing it for us.

The hymn has its roots in a 35- stanza poem, which comes from the Middle Ages.  In the 1400s, it was the practice to sing different sections of this poem every day during holy week.

In the 1600s, the last section of the poem was used by the German pastor Paul Gerhardt as the basis of a hymn he wrote; and that is the hymn which the world cherishes today.  Gradually the power and beauty of this hymn caused it to spread throughout Germany.

In 1752, it was translated for the first time into English.  80 years later, a 2nd English translation was made… and that is, basically, the version we sing today.

The beautiful melody of this song has its own history.  It was originally the tune of a German love song.  However, ever since the hymn was published in 1653, this tune has been associated with it.

The brilliant classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach loved this hymn and in the 1700s he worked out a harmonization which has become the well known arrangement found in most hymnals throughout the world.

Now I’d like to ask our musicians to sing the first 3 verses of this hymn for us.


The theme of Passion Sunday can be difficult for us.  It is ugly.  It is awful.  People sometimes resist this dark theme in church:  “Why do we have to dwell on that stuff?” They ask.  “Why not dwell on more uplifting stuff.  Isn’t that more helpful?”

In our society of affluence, we try very hard to shield ourselves from life’s ugliness and horror.  And we are often successful, because we are lucky enough to live where and when we do.  Rampant disease, war, poverty, oppression… most people are able to hold these things a safe distance away.

We like our lives to be filled with happy things, pleasant things.  And crucifixion is just not counted among happy, pleasant things.

I think we really need hymns like “O Sacred Head …” because through them, people who know life differently than us can speak to us.  They can show us why the crucifixion is important.

The author of O Sacred Head, Paul Gerhardt, lived during a time of terrible conflict in Germany.  He lived during the Thirty Years War, a time which saw the terrible destruction of entire regions by marauding armies.  People witnessed terrible horrors.  The conflict also gave rise to widespread famine and disease and ultimately bankrupt most of the participating powers.  For years after the war was over, people continued to suffer its effects in poverty and disease.

In his personal life, Paul Gerhardt and his wife (Anna Maria) had five children.  All of these died in infancy or childhood except one.  This, of course, was the cause of great pain and suffering for them.  Gerhardt’s wife then also died while still quite young.

As I think about this hymn, I am struck by the fact that in the first two stanzas; as one hears expressions of horror at the death of Jesus on the cross, it sounds as if it comes from an eyewitness.  And in truth it does.  What Gerhardt saw with his own eyes… the dying and suffering and sorrow in his community and family finds expression here. 

“How pale thou art with anguish… how does that face now languish, which once was bright as morn.”

Jesus on the cross speaks to Gerhardt, because Gerhardt has seen innocent people, even his own children in the same position of suffering and dying.  He has seen brutality.  He has seen the life of someone he loves drain away.  He knows what it looks like.  He knows what it feels like.

And so he understands how important it is that Jesus was on the cross… that Jesus is where he himself cannot be, and in that way, Jesus can rescue those he was powerless to help. 

Gerhardt didn’t need a happy, uplifting Jesus.  Gerhardt, who knew and experienced first-hand how brutal and cruel life could be, needed a Jesus that would meet him in that place of terror and sorrow and loss that is familiar to so many of our human family; because otherwise, he’d be there all alone.

Human life is fragile.  We who live safe, affluent lives need the cross because on the cross we see the truth about the human condition… the truth we try so hard to hide.  We see the horror that can lay waste to innocent lives… and the horror that we humans can inflict on each other. 

We also need the cross because, like Gerhardt, it teaches us that it is the way of God to stand with those who suffer.  God does not observe, address or judge us from some distant, holy place, but he comes into this world, enters the dark experience of his suffering, sorrowing human creatures in order to share our pain… in order contend with and break the power of sin and death that holds us in its grip.

The cross also shows us that as followers of Christ, the proper response to this world’s horrors is not, “Please don’t darken my day with that.”  Rather, the proper response is compassion, concern and action.  Like Christ, we are not to turn our backs on those who suffer, but tend to them… engage the causes of their suffering; because Christ shows us that is the way of the Kingdom of God.

As a preacher, I find it hard to talk about the crucifixion.  What can we say about something so terrible?  What can we say that would have any meaning?  Not much, quite honestly.  I think that’s why we need hymns like O Sacred Head… because they say, through the power of their poetry and music, much more than we can say with our words. 

The final two stanzas of this hymn are essentially a prayer expressing how the knowledge of the cross transforms our lives.  Seeing Jesus in his pain, abandoned by his friends, forgiving his executioners, crying out forsakenness… reveals a God we would never expect.  It reveals a God who seeks to be with his people as they suffer… even as they reject him.  It reveals a God who will enter the greatest darkness and the worst horror of this world in order to rescue his people from the clutches of sin and death.

Verse three speaks of how the deep love of God that is revealed on the cross changes and shapes what we value in the world.  The response to the cross is, “O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be; Lord, Let me never, never outlive my love to thee.”

Building our life around… upon… the love that God has for us; that is the new life that springs forth in us as we see and understand the horror of the cross.

The final verse of the song (that we will sing together in a minute) conveys the most important lesson of the cross… In that moment (or moments) of our lives when we face the greatest darkness, may we know and hold fast to God’s love.  For on the cross, God has shown us that there is nothing – no darkness, no human act and no spiritual power – that can prevent him from drawing us in and making us his forever.