Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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What Language Shall I Borrow?

April 20th, 2011 · 3 Comments · Faith and the City

Every Christmas, people approach me to request that their favorite carol or Advent hymn be sung in worship.  They banter with me about the merits of “O Little Town in Bethlehem” versus “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”  It is a fun debate.

I have never had a similar conversation regarding the hymns of Lent.  I think I know why.

These hymns are somber.  They deal in a candid, plunk-you-down-at-the-foot-of-the-cross manner with the suffering and death of Jesus.  They make us think about our own mortality and the deaths of those whom we have known and loved.  We hold these pieces of music close to our hearts.  We don’t debate them; we cling to them.  They are sacred to us—truly sacred.

This holy music comes to us from so many times and contexts.  “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” was written in 1707 by the great English hymn writer, Isaac Watts.  “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” is an African American spiritual forged in the terrible crucible of slavery.

“O Sacred Head Now Wounded” is one of our oldest hymns.  Its text comes from a poem thought to be the work of the French monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1100).  It includes the following amazing stanza:

What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?

O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.

To me, all of these hymns pull off the difficult balancing act of Holy Week.  They allow me to look at the suffering and dying of Jesus, and to see, in the midst of the nastiness and gore, God’s love.  They allow me, while I look down at the hymnal, my eyes blinking back the tears, to gaze upon Christ the crucified, and to “borrow” another’s language as I sing, “Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.”

I hope to see you in the coming Holy Days, and when the light dawns on Easter morn.

All good blessings.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • CharleneNo Gravatar

    This might sound really morbid of me, but I love the darkness of Lent (or as you refer to as the “candid, plunk-you-down-at-the-foot-of-the-cross manner with the suffering and death of Jesus”).

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Advent too, but the continual sentiment of hope and expectation is dissonant with my real life experience. For me the light always dawns the brightest on Easter morning the darker the nights that precede it, so I masochistically relish the pain and sadness because I know it will produce a fuller joy and celebration.

    • SBJNo Gravatar


      I agree. And I don’t think your thoughts sound morbid. Just real. True. We know the darkness isn’t fake.


  • Laura FissingerNo Gravatar

    The stanza by Bernard of Clairvaux became one of my favorite year-round prayers the moment I read it. Thank you so very much for including it! I was also moved by how vulnerable you sound in this blog entry, Rev. Scott. I am grateful that you allow us to see your heart. Very grateful indeed.