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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Hymn puts crucifixion in personal perspective C. Michael Hawn, Mar 28, 2012
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Ah, Holy Jesus” Johann Heerman, trans. Robert Bridges UM Hymnal, No. 289.
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended, that we to judge thee have in hate pretended? By foes derided, by thine own rejected, O most afflicted.
In many ways, “Ah, Holy Jesus” is a 17th-century rendition of the African American Spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The persistent use of the first-person perspective places the singer not only at the foot of the cross, but also as one who is personally responsible for the death of the Savior.
Indeed, Latin hymns provide a long history of this kind of perspective that was heightened with the Pietist poets in the 17th-century German tradition and carried over directly into the 18th century by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, the latter being influenced by the spirituality of the Moravians, descendants of the 17th-century German Pietists.
Johann Heerman (1585-1647) was the only surviving child of five. His mother vowed that he would be trained for the ministry if God spared his life. Overcoming personal health problems with his sight and throat and victimized by war, Heerman became both a pastor and scholar. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) took a terrible toll on him as he was personally threatened in fighting, lost most of his personal property, and was ravaged by the plague.
Earlier he wrote in Latin, but then wrote in German as the best way to express faith. Schooled in the classics, Heerman was once thought to have been inspired by St. Augustine’s medieval Latin writings, often titled Meditations. As hymnologist Albert Bailey notes, Augustine’s theology “follow[s] the traditional interpretation of the Crucifixion, namely, that by His sufferings and death Jesus took upon Himself the punishment due the sins of the world.” Following the lead of classic Latin medieval theology, “the penitent sinner personalizes the general fact: it was for my sins He suffered.”
However, more recent scholarship indicates that Heerman was influenced by the writings of Jean de Fécamp (d. 1078), the Abbot of Fécamp in Normandy.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) was a remarkable individual skilled as a scholar, translator, musician and physician. His declining health caused him to give up his medical career and, as a result, he focused on literature and hymnody.
Stanza one begins with the rhetorical question, “how hast thou offended?” The obvious answer is that Christ did not deserve this derision and rejection. Then the remaining stanzas focus on the guilty party. Stanza two asks, “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?”
This time, the response is not rhetorical; it is declarative: “’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”
Stanza three invokes the image of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-21) who gives his life for the sheep. The device of paradox is employed to heighten the situation: “The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.”
Stanza four focuses on the purpose of the incarnation which is ultimately “for [our] salvation.” The tone of the final stanza moves from the harsh reality of acknowledging our complicity in Christ’s suffering to adoration and gratitude for “thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.”
J. R. Watson notes, “The hymn thus provides a commentary which becomes severely personal, and in the process very demanding, as each person has to recognize that his or her sins are a copy of the sins of those who crucified Christ.”
The melody is inseparable from this tune, first appearing in Johann Crüger’s Neues volkömliches Gesangbuch Augburgischer Confession (1640) published in Berlin. The melody appears to have been adapted from a tune set to Psalm 23 in the Genevan Psalter (1543). J. S. Bach (1685-1750) made the melody famous by incorporating it three times in the St. Matthew Passion and twice in the St. John Passion.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.