Bernard of Clairvaux’s solemn hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” helps us better understand that the Gospel is grounded in Christ’s sacrifice not in our faithfulness. It also helps us affirm that those who are restored to God through Christ’s sacrifice enter a new friendship with God. These themes are not restricted to medieval hymns. But the beauty with which Bernard presents these themes is, needless to say, hard to match.
“They don’t write songs like that anymore.” It is not uncommon to hear an elderly man or woman utter these words whenever he or she thinks back on the “good ol’ days” of music. In a sense, this phrase is every bit as applicable in the church as it in the secular world of music. While many have written beautiful worship music in our day, we continue to need older hymns to help round out our worship experience. Fewer Christian songs are as “out of date” as Bernard of Clairvaux’s “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Perhaps that’s why we need it now more than ever.
Authorship of this hymn has historically been ascribed to Bernard–though the question of authorship may never be conclusively settled. Who was Bernard? Bernard was born in Burgundy, France in 1090. His early devotion to literature later bore fruit in his powerful preaching and writing. When he was twenty-five he helped found a monastery which he named Claire Vallée, which evolved into Clairvaux from which his name comes. Here he kept a strict regimen of physical and spiritual discipline, though, unlike many monks of his day, Bernard was very much involved in churchly activities. After a rigorous and tumultuous life, he died at Clairvaux in 1153.
Many modern evangelicals would disagree with a number of Bernard’s teachings (such as his excessive emphasis on Mary and her supposed role as co-mediatrix, as well as the view that the Christian life is best lived in a monastery). Still, there is much we can appreciate in Bernard. John Calvin, a fellow-Frenchman living 400 years later, had a deep and growing appreciation for Bernard, citing him forty-one times from 1539-1559.
Bernard was captivated by Christ. He rested in his finished work and found deep comfort in union with his Savior. For Bernard the righteousness that justifies a person is God’s gift received by faith alone.1 Bernard also helped promote a more experiential expression of Christianity which had become formalized in certain medieval traditions. He advocated the discipline of lectio divina, in which Scripture is treated as a means of communion with God through reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. Bernard was a sort of proto-Puritan who lived by the maxim, “I believe that I may experience.”2 “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” is a vivid expression of his experiential Christianity.
This hymn, based on a long poem entitled “Hail Savior of the World,” contains stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ’s body hanging on the cross. The last part of the poem is addressed to Christ’s head; it begins with the Latin for “Hail bloody head.” The stanzas that appear in many contemporary hymnals come to us by way of the translation of J.W. Alexander (1830) and confront us with three important facets of Christ’s suffering: the graphic nature of it, the grace that flows from it and the gratitude with which we are to respond when we embrace it.