I can think of very few hymns that are as moving and powerful as “Ah, Holy Jesus,” by the 16th century Lutheran pastor, Johann Heermann. Knowing his story makes it even more powerful. Imagine, for a moment, being Johann, the author of this hymn. You are born in 1585, the only surviving child of the five born to your parents. Your father is a fur trader with very limited resources. You are severely ill as a child, and your mother makes a vow that if you survive you will be prepared for the ministry. You do, and eventually become pastor of a small church in Koben. You get married. You have six years without any serious trials in your life. But then, in 1616, your town is devastated by a fire. A year later, your wife dies. A year after that, the Thirty Years War breaks out. Your town is plundered four times. You lose all your possessions. Then, your town is struck by pestilence. You live with throat trouble, which forces you to give up preaching in 1634. But you still poetry and hymns, through all that you have experienced. And you become, eventually, one of the most important Lutheran hymn-writers to ever have lived. How do you do it? Perhaps, you do it by asking the right questions.
Johan Heerman has lots of reasons to ask “why” questions in life: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did all of these things happen to him? Why did his town burn to the ground? Why did his wife die so soon? Why this terrible war? Why did his voice fail him? Why?
But he doesn’t ask those questions, not in this incredible hymn. Instead, he focuses on the cross, and he asks a very different question. He asks why Jesus, God’s only Son and our only Savior, had to suffer and die for us. For Heermann, that is the question that matters.
“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended, that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?” Whatever happens in our life, no matter how bad it might be, how can it compare to the Son of God giving up his divinity and being judged for our sins? How can it compare to what happened on the cross? That “why” overshadows all the “whys” that we ask, doesn’t it?
In the second verse of this hymn, the question is not “why,” but “who.” Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? Who, in other words, is to blame for this? We live in a world that is so quick to blame others. Our world seems almost childish at times when it tries to blame others for its own problems. Even with Jesus’ death, the world has often asked, “who is to blame?”
This hymn, in good Lutheran fashion, poignantly reminds us that, when it comes to blame for Jesus’ death, the blame is entirely ours. It is because of our sin that he died. Who was the guilty? “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”
And then, as the third verse of this beautiful hymn reminds us, while we nothing heeded, God interceded. In the midst of our sin, God sent his Son to die for us. There is no greater love than that.
So what do we do? How might we repay God for this wondrous gift? The last verse tells us very clearly that we cannot repay God. What can we do to repay God for God’s kindness? Nothing. It is all gift. It is pure grace. But there is something we can do:
“Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.”
What can we do? We can adore and worship our Lord. We can pray to our Lord. We can serve our Lord. We can remember the poor and all who are in need. It is true that there is nothing we can do to take away our sin. There is nothing we can do to prevent Jesus from being crucified. But there is much that we can do in response to what he has first done for us. And it begins – always – by adoring our crucified and risen Lord. And I can think of no more powerful hymn that helps us to do this than “Ah, Holy Jesus.” Here it is, in a translation by the Anglican poet, Robert Bridges:
Ah, Holy Jesus | Johann Heermann
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! Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! 'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee. Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered. For our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded. For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life's oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation. Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.
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This is one of my favorites too. It is so perfect for Holy Week.
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