Jesus Christ Superscar: Why the Wounds of Christ Deserve Our Prayerful Devotion

By Jules Gomes Published on March 29, 2024

Wounds speak far more eloquently than words. From the days of the early Church, Christians have held in special honor the wounds of Christ.

The wounds of Jesus associated with His passion and crucifixion — wounds on His hands, feet, side, back, and head, have been venerated as the channels through which His precious blood was shed for the salvation of the world.

On Good Friday, we “survey that wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,” and, in the words of Isaac Watts, we “see from His head, His hands, His feet; Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” We sing of that “sacred head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn.”

Hiding in Jesus’s Wounds

Down the ages, poets and painters, musicians and mystics, theologians and missionaries, kings and commoners, have drawn the blessed assurance of salvation and the greatest of solace from contemplating the wounds of Christ.

In the eleventh century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux saw the sacred wounds as crevasses in which the faithful could shelter. In the hymn attributed to him, we sing: “deep in thy wounds Lord, hide and shelter me. So shall I never, never part from thee.”

King Alfonso of Portugal, in gratitude to Christ from his victory over the Moors at the Battle of Ourique (1139), placed the five wounds on the coat of arms of his new kingdom.

In the Middle Ages, jewelry was frequently marked with the wounds of Christ. Pendant crosses, like that bequeathed by Maud, Countess of Cambridge had “four great pears and one ruby in the midst,” representing the five wounds.

This devotion wasn’t restricted to Catholics. The theology of Jesus’s wounds was central to the evangelism of the Moravian missionaries and to the conversion experience of the native peoples of North America. One of the first texts translated into Mahican was Count Nikolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf’s Litany of the Wounds.

From Bach to Buxtehude

During my time as chaplain to the Royal Naval College Chapel, my director of music approached me as we were preparing the liturgy for Holy Week, asking me if I would like to preach on the “Wounds of Christ” for Good Friday. “What’s the catch?” I wondered.

“I’d like us to sing Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri,” he said. “It is a wonderful piece with seven cantatas on the seven wounds of Christ for soloists, choir, and orchestra. You’ll love it.”

(For English translation of the Latin text, click here.)

I wanted Bach, not Buxtehude! I was trying to get the choir to sing Bach’s St. John’s Passion that year. But having served in churches with professional choirs, I knew the old maxim: “The difference between a terrorist and a church organist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist.”

I will be forever grateful to my director of music for introducing me to one of the most moving oratorios ever composed. I had no idea that Buxtehude, a devout Lutheran, who wrote Membra Jesu Nostri for five voices and orchestra, was so influential as a musician-composer and that his Church of St Mary’s in Lübeck, north Germany, became a mecca for musicians.

Buxtehude’s Towering Influence

The young Handel visited Buxtehude in 1703. In 1705, the young Johann Sebastian Bach walked more than 200 miles to see him. Both young men hoped to succeed the virtuoso at Lübeck, but the requirement was that the organist succeeding him had to marry one of his daughters (and both Handel and Bach found this unacceptable).

Musicologist Hermann Wettstein calls Buxtehude the “most important representative of northern Baroque church music.” As a church music composer, Buxtehude made particular use of the Psalms, Isaiah, and the Song of Songs — a passionately romantic biblical text which was metaphorically interpreted in his day as depicting the love between Jesus and the believer.

The highly expressive devotional and emotional style of Membra Jesu Nostri, portrays Jesus as the “dying bridegroom” demanding a response of reciprocal love from each individual believer. The text is based on the mediaeval poem Salve Mundi Salutare, traditionally attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, though more recently credited to the Cistercian abbot Arnuph of Leuven.

Buxtehude heightens tension by juxtaposing consonance and dissonance, with dissonance conveying Christ’s emotional and physical pain on the cross. Heaven is portrayed in major keys while earth is depicted in the minor key. The joy of the mystical union with Jesus, the beloved, is expressed through dance-like rhythms, sixteenth notes, triple meter, and other devices.

The Seven Wounds of Christ

With Membra Jesu Nostri, I begin my sorrowful contemplation of Jesus’s wounds at the foot of the cross, at the feet of Jesus (Ad pedes). But my sorrow turns to joy when I hear the first cantata dovetailing the bleeding feet of my Lord with Isaiah’s prophecy: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace” (52:7).

The second cantata lifts my head slightly and beckons me to contemplate my Savior’s knees (Ad genua). The Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) devotion portrays Jesus falling three times under the weight of the cross. How it must have bruised those most holy knees that had already knelt for hours in the Garden of Gethsemane begging the Father to “take this cup from me!”

Buxtehude is also nudging me to also contemplate Jesus’s victory on the cross. The second cantata begins with a paraphrase of Isaiah 45:23: “They will bear Thee on their breast and do Thee honor on bended knee” (a text used by Paul in Philippians)? I ask myself: “Am I bowing my knees to Jesus in every area of my life?”

With the skill of a Caravaggio, the composer then directs me from the knees to Jesus hands (Ad manus). The third cantata begins with a question: “What are these wounds in the middle of Thy hands?” The poignant interrogative forces me to ask: “Why did Jesus have to die?” The answer follows in the next movement: “Thy sacred Hands were outstretched for me.”

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And because Jesus died for me, I can respond singing with Buxtehude: “Washed in the fountain of Thy Blood, I place me wholly in Thy trust.” I recognize I am contributing nothing to my salvation except the sin that necessitated my Savior’s death. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, I can, in turn, now confidently respond: “Blessed Hands, I now embrace you.”

The assurance of the “free gift” of salvation (a phrase Paul repeats five times in Romans 5) is so liberating that when I turn to gaze at the wounded side (Ad latus) of my Savior in the fourth cantata I find myself falling in love with Him — rather than hating the God who would rightly condemn me to Hell for my sins.

Buxtehude breaks through with joyful rhythms as the choir introduces the fourth cantata with love poetry from the Song of Songs (2:10): “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; my dove among the rocky clefts and stony caves.” I reply: “Hail, my dearest Savior’s Side, Wherein the sweetest honey lies.”

Now, Buxtehude leads the lover to the beloved’s wounded Breast (Ad pectus) and from there to the Savior’s “Sweetest Heart” (Ad cor). Ad pectus ties Jesus’s imperative to be “born again” (John 3:3,7) with Peter’s exhortation urging believer to “crave pure spiritual milk, like newborn babies, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).

The final cantata focuses on Jesus’s face with an allusion to the Aaronic blessing from the book of Numbers (6:23-27). “Make Thy Face to shine upon Thy servant,” the choir sings, “Thy dear Face abused by spitting.” Perhaps the cantata is drawing our attention to Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2b).

Jesus of the Scars

Contemplating the wounds of Jesus, meditating on Membra Jesu Nostri offers me a balm, an ointment, a cure for my wounds and the wounds of the world. Because Jesus “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and by his wounds we are healed” (53:2b).

Wounds speak far more eloquently than words. Edward Shillito, shattered by the carnage of the First World War, was able to come to terms with life after contemplating the wounds of Christ. He penned his poem “Jesus of the Scars,” saying,

The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak,

They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne,

But to our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone. Amen.

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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