Having not taken piano lessons till a little bit later in my life, I remember the first hymn I tried to learn to play on my own. We had a big upright piano in the basement, and for whatever the reasons were in those late grade school days of my life, the hymn I was bound and determined to teach myself to play was #172 in The Lutheran Hymnal, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” I still remember dealing with the G#s in the E major chord halfway through the first line. It was sort of neat to land on that chord at the end of the first long measure. But I also remember that I didn’t have an easy time moving to the next chord, where the G# was all of a sudden in the left hand and I came to find out that my right hand was somehow supposed to cover an octave.
There’s still a keyboard in my basement, a small digital instrument (the real piano is upstairs) that is connected to one of two computers (Windows and Mac). There are also four guitars, three amps, three mic stands, a music stand, several dozen hymnals, and two space heaters. But now, when I look at the Gerhardt hymn, there are usually three or four or more hymnals open to that hymn, and I start wondering about a lot of things that go far beyond how to play it.
In the A chord at the end of the first line there’s a Picardy third (making it an A major chord instead of A minor). But not every Lutheran hymnal has that Picardy third.
I wonder how well Gerhardt’s German represents the original Latin text penned by Bernard of Clairvaux.
It’s easy to note across any number of hymnals that some retained the thees and thous, while others did not.
Then there’s the fact that Bernard’s text and Gerhardt’s hymn and The Lutheran Hymnal all had ten stanzas. A check of several Lutheran hymnals from the past four decades reveals abridgements resulting in the hymn being printed with seven stanzas, four stanzas, or even only three.
One can also note that most Christian hymnals print this hymn with a different rhythm, an equal rhythm of successive quarter notes, along with a harmonization by a Lutheran composer by the name of J.S. Bach. Which rhythm will be in our next hymnal? Or, as some hymnals do, should we include both?
And all of this, of course, is just one case in point. A similar conversation can be had about dozens if not hundreds of hymns.
But what happens when the rubber meets the road and I’m sitting in the pew and Christian Worship #105 appears on the hymn board? What happens if the service folder indicates that we are to sing stanzas 1,3,4, and 7? What happens if the organist plays a harmony for one stanza which is not the harmony that’s printed in the book, and it doesn’t work for me to sing the bass line where I know that G# is supposed to be coming soon? What if the pastor printed the “equal rhythm” version of the hymn in the service folder and that’s how the organist is playing it and now we’re all supposed to sing it in a way we’ve never really sung it before?
I’m not trying to create issues where issues don’t exist, nor do I want people to reply to this article with comments such as, “Yeah, I hate when things like that happen.” What I’m trying to do is to be honest about a temptation with which I have a tough time, one which I’m pretty sure the devil knows is a weakness of mine: being distracted by the details, getting all caught up with and carried away by peripheral matters, with the result that my mind is not on the message.
I am comforted to know that the one whose sacred head was wounded was in fact wounded to pay for all my Third Commandment sins of despising his Word in whichever ways I may ever have despised it. I also recognize more and more all the time that I need his Spirit to work inside me so that when I am sitting in a pew with a hymnal in my hand, I am concentrating on the message rather than on the things that I like or don’t like about the particular way in which this hymn (or psalm or rite) appears on the page.
When the Spirit works to make that happen, there are good results. According to the promise of Jesus, there are bound to be good results. “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28 KJV). Look what we get to hear about in just one stanza of this hymn (CW 105:4), and think about how blessed we are to hear it!
Lord, in your passion, the burden that you bore was mine. It was my transgression that filled you with shame as you died on Calvary. That transgression of mine would have crushed me and left me in eternal solitary confinement, forever shackled to a wall in a cell in hell. But you bore it for me, and it is no longer mine to bear. I can say with confidence that I will never find out what hell is like. Lord Jesus, you will never spurn me. You have taken ownership of me. I belong to you now, and that’s never going to change, not today, not tomorrow, not the day that I die, not ever.
We continue to work so that the next hymnal you hold in your hands will allow you to be soaked by the rain shower of God’s grace in Christ. In whatever ways things appear on the page, all of us will always need the Spirit’s work inside us so that we can mute the distractions and instead concentrate on and trust in the message about our Savior. This article goes out with the prayer that your Holy Week and Easter worship will be overflowing with the blessings Jesus promises to all who hear and cling to his message of deliverance, forgiveness, peace, and unstoppable Easter joy.