Pondering the Crucifixion. . . 

As we ponder the many layers and mysteries of Christ’s crucifixion, we should not be surprised to uncover more questions than answers.  The age-old conundrums present themselves again:  How can it be that God sent Christ into the world to atone for humanity’s failings?  How can we express appropriate gratitude for such a gift?  How can we possibly live up to this greatest of sacrifices?  Right along with the rest of us, great musicians have contemplated these questions throughout history, using their formidable powers of creative expression to illuminate the Gospel message. Those attending our Wednesday evening Lenten studies are getting wonderful glimpses into the Passion story as told through the many-faceted works of genius in the visual arts and music. These are not just products of the past, but rather are living arts in which the great story continues to unfold as humanity moves forward through the centuries.

The great chorale, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, is an icon of the Passion story, and has been the foundation for a great deal of passionate musical expression.  Brahms’ beautiful organ prelude is one example.  It was a favorite chorale of J. S. Bach, who set it five times in his St. Matthew Passion alone. The text has origins in the late Middle Ages, during a time when hymn writers began to reflect on more personal, subjective, and introspective themes. Probably the best-known of the Latin hymns from this period is that of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1154), Salve caput cruentatum (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded).  This was the seventh and last of a series of poems, called Salve Mundi Salutare, addressed to Christ on the cross, each poem a "rhythmical prayer to the various members of Christ’s body suffering and hanging on the cross": the feet, the knees, the hands, the side, the breast, the heart, and the head or face, each for a different day of the week.  Clairvaux’s poetry shows a mystic faith and an astonishing emotional intensity.

Jesu Leiden, Pein, und Tod (Jesus’ Suffering, Pain, and Death) is another great chorale, not as well known to modern Presbyterians (it doesn’t appear in our hymnal, though the Wednesday class has now sung it!).  The beautiful tune by Melchior Vulpius dates from the early 17th century and has inspired many musicians, including Bach, who used it multiple times in his Passions.  The 17th-century text, by Sigismund von Birken, is deeply contemplative and perfect for use not only in corporate worship, but in individual practice, as a meditation on Christ’s sacrifice.  The first two verses provide the basic gist:

         Jesus, I will ponder now on Your holy Passion;
         With Your Spirit me endow for such meditation.
         Grant that I in love and faith may the image cherish
         Of Your suffering, pain, and death, that I may not perish.
         Make me see Your great distress, anguish, and affliction,
         Bonds and stripes and wretchedness, and Your crucifixion;
         Make me see how scourge and rod, spear and nails did wound You;
         How for them You died, O God, who with thorns had crowned You.

Just as in what I think of as its "sister chorale," O Sacred Head, this text does not shy away from realistic, gruesome depictions of Christ’s suffering.  Rather, it is intended to make us look directly at the suffering.  The words force us to see real pain here, which in turn encourages deep repentance for what our sins have caused.  Wilbur Held’s setting of this great tune brings out its rich depth, often by using thick harmonies (including double-note held pedal lines) that sit heavily on the ear, yet always clearly bringing out the tune.  Held (b. 1914) was one of my organ and church music professors many years ago; a gentle man and a great teacher, he was deeply passionate about hymns and inspired his students to respect and love their rich beauty.  J. C. Vogler’s prelude on the same tune comes from an earlier century, but this is not the primary difference.  Vogler uses what is known as the "embellished soprano cantus firmus" style, which simply means the melody is found, highly ornamented, in the top line of the texture.  Vogler’s prelude is absolutely gorgeous, but so extremely ornamented that the melody itself is completely hidden.  I would dare anyone–even those quite familiar with the tune–to actually find it amid all those ornaments!  Toward the end of the piece, Vogler experimented with astonishing harmonies, some of which sound as if they came from the late 20th-century.  They cause the listener to sit at attention.

Another way to ponder Christ’s crucifixion is by listening to some of the great American folk hymns on the subject.  As with most folk music, these get to the heart of the matter very directly and powerfully. Gardner Read’s (1913-2005) collection, Preludes on Old Southern Hymns, is well-known and respected among American organists in part because he so beautifully captures the haunting character of these tunes.   We can well ask: "Do not I love Thee, O My Lord? Behold my heart and see; and turn each cursed idol out, that dares to rival Thee. . ." And we hear the question in the music.  The Chancel Choir’s anthem at 11:00, My Song in the Night, is Paul Christiansen’s lovely arrangement of another great Southern hymn.  In it, we ask: "Oh why should I wander, an alien from Thee, or cry in the desert Thy face to see? My comfort and joy, my souls’ delight, O Jesus, my Savior, my song in the night." In affliction, in deep distress, and in the many dark moments of our days and nights on earth, contemplating Christ’s love offers us comfort and a quiet peace.

Our great closing hymn this morning is God, Our Help and Constant Refuge, set to Herbert Howells’ magnificent tune Michael.  Howells (1892-1983), the British composer celebrated for works like Hymnus Paradisi (1938–a requiem) and "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing" (Motet on the Death of President Kennedy; 1964), composed this tune in memory of his son Michael, who died of spinal meningitis at the age of nine.  In midst of tremendous grief, Howells sought comfort in his deep faith and in his gift of artistic expression.  Fred Anderson’s text paraphrase of the great Psalm 46 is, in his words, a "classic text of hope in the midst of strife and pain."  

This morning’s postludes are wonderful examples of the many chorale-based and chant-based penitential works that are founded on some version of the familiar words of the ancient Kyrie eleison: Lord, have mercy on us. Though Pachelbel’s (1653-1706) and Hanff’s (1665-1712) settings come from the same time period and are based on the same chorale, they sound nothing at all alike.  Hanff’s anguished setting uses a great deal of chromaticism to express contrition and sorrow; Pachelbel’s setting is more flowing.