History of Hymns: 'Ah, Holy Jesus' [Jesu]
By C. Michael Hawn
“Ah, Holy Jesus” [Jesu]
by Johann Heermann, trans. Robert Bridges
United Methodist Hymnal, 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.
Rarely does a single hymn involve the confluence of so many held in such high regard in their respective eras: St. Augustine (North Africa, 4th–5th centuries), Johann Heermann (Poland, 17th century), Johann Crüger (Germany, 17th century), J.S. Bach (Germany, 18th century), and Robert Bridges (England, 19th–20th centuries).
In many ways, “Ah, holy Jesus” is a seventeenth-century companion to the African American Spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” In both cases, the persistent use of the first-person perspective places the singer at the foot of the cross, pondering the meaning of Christ's suffering. “Were You There?” meditates on the crucifixion through a series of rhetorical questions. “Ah, Holy Jesus” meditates on the events leading to the crucifixion and asks who is personally responsible for the death of the Savior.
Latin hymns offer a substantial history of Passion meditation. This reflection continued with the Pietist poets in the seventeenth-century German tradition. It carried over directly into the eighteenth century by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, who was influenced by the Moravian spirituality, descendants of the seventeenth-century German Pietists. This hymn brings the theology of the atonement to the fore. Prepare to reflect on the nature of atonement in the twenty-first century at the end of this article.
The German Poet and English Translation
Johann Heermann (1585–1647), born in Silesia (now Poland), was the only surviving child of five. His mother vowed that he would be trained for the ministry if God spared his life. Despite personal health problems with his sight, a throat condition that prevented him from preaching, and victimized by war, Heermann became both a pastor and a scholar. The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) took a terrible toll on him because of the dangers of warfare, loss of personal property, and the ravages of plague. Despite all, his poetic skills were of such a level that he was named poet laureate in the Holy Roman Empire in 1608 (Herl, 2019, v. 1, p. 281).
Hymnologists consider Heermann to be second only to Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676) in his era (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 152). Consider comparing the theology of Heermann’s hymn with Gerhardt’s famous “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” as a devotional exercise. Earlier in his life, Heermann wrote in Latin but then penned his works in German, expressing his faith and theology in the vernacular. Most English translations that congregations sing today reflect but a portion of the original hymn. The German text, “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen,” was first published in Heermann’s Devoti Musica Cordis (1630) in fifteen four-line stanzas under the title “Ursache des bittern Leidens Jesu Christi, und Trost aus seiner Lieb und Gnade. Aus Augustino” (“The cause of the bitter sufferings of Jesus Christ, and consolation from his love and grace. From Augustine”). While Heermann was indebted to the writings of the Church Fathers, Augustine’s Meditationes, the source of this hymn, is a compilation from several authors. Recent scholarship indicates that Meditation VII ("An acknowledgment that sinful man was the cause of Christ's sufferings") is possibly by Jean de Fécamp (c. 990–1079), the Abbot of Fécamp in Normandy, rather than St. Augustine. Heermann’s German version is based on the Latin hymn, “Quid commisisti, dulcissime puer, ut sic judicareris” (What have you committed, sweet boy, that you should be so judged) (Watson and Hornby, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.).
A third player in this lyrical reflection is Robert Bridges (1844–1930), poet laureate of England, and a brilliant individual, skilled as a scholar, translator, musician, and physician. His declining health caused him to give up his medical career and, as a result, focus on literature and hymnody. Earlier translations include those by Frances Elizabeth Cox (“What laws, my blessed Savior, hast Thou broken”) and Catherine Winkworth (“Alas, dear Lord, what law then has Thou broken”) (See Mearns, 1892, p. 517). Winkworth translates all fifteen stanzas of the original German. Rather than attempting a complete translation of the lengthy hymn, Bridges chose to paraphrase a part of it in five stanzas. Bridges’ shorter translation surpassed the others in use when it appeared in the influential Yattendon Hymnal, Part II (1897). Inclusion in the popular English Hymnal (1906) in the United Kingdom and the Episcopal Hymnal (1916) in the USA assured its prominence (Watson, “Herzliebster Jesu,” n.d.).
Bridges chose to stay with the uncommon 188.8.131.52 meter prescribed by the German tune, generally called a Sapphic meter. He translates the first three stanzas of Heermann’s German but more freely paraphrases the final two stanzas, continuing the idea. From the incipit (first phrase), difficulties present themselves since English does not have an idiomatic equivalent form for “herzliebster”/“dulcissime”—most beloved/most sweet (Watson, “Ah, holy Jesu,” n.d.). For poetic aficionados, Carl Daw Jr., himself a skilled translator of hymns, has provided a thorough and masterful analysis of Bridges' translation (Daw, 2016, pp. 220–221).
The Hymn and Its Theology
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” (Bailey, 1950, p. 325). The hymn is a response to Luke 23:20–24:
Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them. But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: I will therefore chastise him, and let him go. And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. (KJV)
Stanza 1 begins with the rhetorical question, “how hast thou offended?” This query parallels the question that opens Meditation VII: "What hadst thou done, O charming innocence, to bring thee as a criminal before thy enemies bar?” (Augustine, 1818, p. 23) The obvious answer is that Christ did not deserve ridicule and rejection. The remaining stanzas focus on the guilty party.
Stanza 2 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 3 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 4 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” (Watson, 2002, p. 73).
A Theological Word of Caution
Particular interpretations of Isaiah 53 permeate Heermann’s German and Bridges’ English paraphrase. The view of substitutionary atonement (Christ died as a substitute for others) and the ransom theory of the atonement (Jesus’ death paid a ransom to Satan and, in doing so, God rescued humanity from Satan’s bondage) influenced this hymn. These atonement theories were held widely in Eastern (Irenaeus and Athanasius) and Western (Augustine) branches of the early church. Penal substitution carries the doctrine further—Christ was punished for the sins of humanity. This interpretation grows out of a much later medieval synthesis of the earlier theories, most clearly with Anselm, and promoted by John Calvin.
While various atonement theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, more recent atonement discussions suggest that a Christian approach to the cross is more complicated than a spiritual quid pro quo. For example, Christus Victor is a long-held view that shifted the focus from Christ’s death as a form of ransom to Christ’s death and rising as a defeat of evil that sets humanity free. John of Damascus, an eighth-century poet from the Eastern Church, articulates this view beautifully in his hymn “The Day of Resurrection.” This hymn also calls attention to a helpful image of Easter as a second Passover. Toward the end of the twentieth century, one can find this emphasis in hymns, pointing toward the Christ who liberates us from systemic injustice. Brian Wren’s “Christ is Alive, Let Christians Sing” (1968) and Cesáreo Gabaráin’s “Walk on, O People of God” (“Camina Pueblo, de Dios”) (1979) are examples of this extension of Christus Victor theology. This author suggests that as we sing the Holy Week meditations “Ah, Holy Jesus” and “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” we should not lose sight of where the grand narrative takes us. While focusing on individual sin and its consequences is appropriate, this view, when isolated from God’s redemption of humanity and the importance of the good news of the victorious Christ in overcoming systemic evil of all kinds, may be detrimental.
The Music: HERZLIEBSTER JESU
The melody is inseparable from the tune HERZLIEBSTER JESU, first appearing in Neues volkömliches Gesangbuch: Augburgischer Confession. . . (Berlin, 1640) by Johann Crüger (1598–1662).
The first phrase from Crüger’s collection is in four-part harmony—Cantus (melody), Altus, Tenor, Bassus. Crüger was one of the most significant proponents of Heermann’s texts. The melody appears to have adapted 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.
Bridges’ free translation is available in numerous hymnals. Winkworth’s fifteen-stanza full translation is available most recently in Lutheran Service Book (2006).
Albert E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950).
St. Augustine, St. Anselm, and St. Bernard, The Meditations of St. Augustine, His Treatise of the Love of God, Soliloquies, and Manual, Tr. George Stanhope (London, 1818), https://archive.org/details/meditationsstau00berngoog/page/n32/mode/2up (accessed January 2, 2021).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Joseph Herl, Peter Reske, John Vieker, eds. Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns, Vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019).
James Mearns, “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen,” A Dictionary of Hymnology, Ed. John Julian (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,  1957, https://archive.org/details/imslp-dictionary-of-hymnology-julian-john/PMLP213617-Julian-DictionaryOfHymnology_A-O/page/n533/mode/2up (accessed January 2, 2021).
J. Richard Watson and Emma Hornby, “Jean de Fécamp,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jean-de-fécamp (accessed January 1, 2021).
J. Richard Watson, “Ah, Holy Jesu, How Hast Thou Offended,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/ah,-holy-jesu,-how-hast-thou-offended (accessed January 1, 2021).
_____, An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
_____, “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/herzliebster-jesu,-was-hast-du-verbrochen (accessed January 1, 2021).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.