Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The message of Holy Week

It is a mystery to me that the words of our hymns are so widely ignored. Over many years of attempting to teach people to pay attention to them, I have had very little success. My sister and I know the words of many hymns by heart, having grown up with our mother who was the organist at our little church, and I have often thought how, if I were ever to be a hostage or captive of some sort, it would be the words of the hymns that would sustain me (I have never had a good word-for-word memory for biblical passages).

In recent years, it has become customary for Episcopalians to sing "Ah, holy Jesus" on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This is surely one of the greatest hymn texts ever written--not on the literary level of the great Christopher Smart, to be sure, but for sheer theological weight, almost unparalleled.

And yet the message of this text never seems to find its way into sermons during Lent, on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday--not the ones I hear across this country, anyway. The congregation sings the hymn, but whether people are absorbing the words as they sing is questionable. I have never heard a sermon that called the congregation to pay attention and to take the words to heart.

If we were to do so, so many problems and questions would be straightened out ("Did the Jews kill Jesus?" "Who deserves salvation?" "Who is the active agent in Christ's crucifixion?" "What about the 'substitutionary atonement'"? "What role does judgment play in the condemnation of Jesus?" "How do I pray to a crucified Lord?").

Why is this text not a central part of our proclamation?

Here it is:

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinnèd, and the Son hath suffered;
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

by Johann Heermann (1585-1647)

The German title of the hymn text is Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen...
Johann Heerman was a German Lutheran theological student and tutor, eventually an ordained Lutheran clergyman and recognized poet. Heerman had a very difficult life full of sickness, pain, and loss, but was obviously a man of towering faith and insight. Blessed Johann is recognized in the Lutheran calendar of saints, on October 26.