The Violence of the Crucifixion | Dr. Leroy
Huizenga | Catholic World Report
The Four Evangelists glory not in the cross’ gore but rather in its shame
One of my duties at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, where I chair the Theology Department, is to help our student music leaders select music appropriate for our well-attended masses. For a recent Wednesday in Lent, for offertory and communion the students selected “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” familiar to many, as well as “Glory Be to Jesus,” an eighteenth-century Italian hymn translated into English in the nineteenth.
The hymn we know as “O Sacred Head Surrounded” originated in Latin in the middle ages. The famous tune and words appear in the Passion Chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. German often sounds blunt to English ears, and the rendering of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden / Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn in the English hymn is as brutal as the German: O Sacred Head surrounded / by crown of piercing thorn! / O bleeding head, so wounded / reviled and put to scorn! The second stanza likewise speaks of death with cruel rigor and agony and dying. “Glory Be to Jesus” is similar, especially in the first stanza: Glory Be to Jesus / Who in bitter pains / Poured for me the lifeblood / from his sacred veins.
Having reviewed the lineup for the mass before the worship aid was to go to print, a member of our campus ministry team sent an email in which she wondered if the repeated references to Jesus’ corporal suffering weren’t a bit much, especially when presented in such a blunt and baroque fashion. My first thought was that it was deep into Lent, and so some lyrical reminders of the depths of the suffering of Christ were entirely appropriate. But our first reactions are not always right, and while we kept the hymns in place, in thinking about it I came to see my colleague had made a good point.
The hymns themselves are wonderful in tune and lyric; there’s nothing essentially wrong with them. But my friend’s instincts were good, for too often Christians focus on the gore involved in the torture and crucifixion of our Lord and miss out on the deeper violence of the crucifixion, the violence on which ancient writers and the Evangelists themselves concentrate.