The Five Wounds of Christ and ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’

O Sacred Head, surrounded by crown of piercing thorn!

Banner of the Holy Wounds, used during the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Banner of the Holy Wounds, used during the Pilgrimage of Grace. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During Lent the Church proposes that we dedicate ourselves to prayer, fasting, abstinence and almsgiving. Our parishes, like Blessed Sacrament here in Wichita, provide many opportunities for us to gather in prayer: Stations of the Cross, Holy Hours with Vespers and Benediction, Lauds after the 6:30 a.m. Daily Mass, etc. To promote abstinence, there’s a Lenten soup supper after Stations of the Cross on the Fridays of Lent; to promote almsgiving, there’s a canned goods drive each weekend. There are many opportunities for the Sacrament of Confession, including a Lenten Penance Service. We even received a postcard in the mail with details about these preparations for Easter.

Other parishes in our diocese have weekly Fish Fry dinners and various devotional and penitential opportunities. Our diocesan Spiritual Life Center also offers many formational programs and devotions. Every Catholic – and anyone making her final preparations for receiving the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil—may avail herself of these riches.


Public Devotion and Private Devotions

In addition to going to our parishes to pray together, or for those who cannot easily get out of the house, Catholic media, especially through EWTN’s radio, television and online presence, offers access to devotions at home. Catholic publishers have announced new books and new editions of classic spiritual reading. In sum, we all have the opportunity—if we take advantage of it—to grow in our faith and love for Jesus from the riches the Church provides us with prayer, spiritual direction, almsgiving and penance.

The theme of many of these devotions is meditation on the Passion of Jesus, His suffering from the Agony of the Garden to the Crucifixion. The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross are most well-known. There are, however, two other devotions I’d like to offer to readers: Devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ and Devotion to the Seven Limbs of Jesus. These two medieval devotions demonstrate great compassion and love for Jesus and His suffering and were part of the pattern of medieval spirituality that focused on the humanity of Jesus and His Sacred Heart.


The Five Wounds of Christ

Devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ was very popular in late medieval England just before the English Reformation under Henry VIII. The Pilgrimage of Grace, the great northern rebellion against the Dissolution of the Monasteries in October 1536 marched under banners depicting these five wounds: in His hands, His feet and His side. One of the Blessed martyrs of Henry VIII’s reign died because she had a cloth embroidered with the emblem of the Five Wounds. Blessed Margaret Pole, mother of Reginald Cardinal Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, had been arrested and imprisoned in connection with a plot against Henry VIII’s changes in religious practice. She couldn’t be charged with any crime, but finding the cloth with the Five Wounds of Christ meant that she could be accused of disloyalty. Blessed Margaret was beheaded without any trial or chance to defend herself on May 27, 1541.

This story just indicates how rich and powerful the symbol of the Five Wounds of Christ was. It was a sign of being a true Catholic in the midst of confusion and betrayal. In his essential study of pre-Reformation England’s traditional Catholic religion and spirituality, The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy states that the Mass of the Five Wounds was one of the most popular votive Masses and the one most commonly designated to be celebrated for the repose of the dead. The wound in Jesus’s side was even connected to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as expressed by Julian of Norwich.

This was not just an English devotion, however, nor one forgotten after the Middle Ages. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states:

The Dominican Rosary also helped to promote devotion to the Sacred Wounds, for while the 50 small beads refer to Mary, the five large beads and the corresponding Pater Nosters are intended to honor the Five Wounds of Christ (Beissel, "Verehrung Marias," I, 525). Again, in some places it was customary to ring a bell at noon on Fridays, to remind the faithful to recite five Paters and Aves in honor of the Holy Wounds. A corona, or rosary, of the Five Wounds was approved by the Holy See on Aug. 11, 1823, and again in 1851. It consists of five divisions, each composed of five Glories in honor of Christ's Wounds and one Ave in commemoration of the Sorrowful Mother. The blessing of the beads is reserved to the Passionists.

Loyola Press publishes A Prayer Book of Catholic Devotions: Praying the Seasons and Feasts of the Church Year compiled by William G. Storey. In the section on Lent, Professor Storey has included an Office in honor of the Five Wounds and five prayers attributed to St. Clare of Assisi, one for each wound Our Lord suffered on the Cross to save us.


A Lutheran Oratorio and a Chorale          

Based upon a series of meditations “Salve Mundi Salutare” attributed to either St. Bernard of Clairvaux or the Cistercian abbot, chronicler, and poet Arnolf of Leuven (c. 1200-1250), Dietrich Buxtehude’s 1680 oratorio “Membra Jesu nostri” offers a musical meditation on the Crucifixion. There are seven cantatas: one each for the wounds in Jesus, feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart and face. The last cantata, on the Holy Face of Jesus, inspired another great hymn: “O Sacred Heart Surrounded”:

Salve, caput cruentatum,
totum spinis coronatum,
conquassatum, vulneratum,
arundine verberatum
facie sputis illita

Hail, bloodied head,
all crowned with thorns,
beaten, wounded,
struck with a cane,
the face soiled with spit.

The Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) adapted and translated this verse into German, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" and a melody by Hans Leo Hassler was borrowed to accompany it—then Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used it for four chorales in his St. Matthew Passion, including Gerhardt’s hymn!

            There are several English translations, including one by Robert Bridges (1844-1930), the English Poet Laureate and publisher of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry:

O sacred head, sore wounded, 
defiled and put to scorn; 
O kingly head surrounded 
with mocking crown of thorn: 
What sorrow mars thy grandeur? 
Can death thy bloom deflower? 
O countenance whose splendor 
the hosts of heaven adore!

The version I am most familiar with is by Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877):

O Sacred Head, surrounded
by crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding Head, so wounded,
reviled and put to scorn!
Our sins have marred the glory
of Thy most Holy Face,
yet angel hosts adore Thee
and tremble as they gaze! 

Throughout the centuries, Catholics and other Christians have meditated on the Passion of Christ in many ways: we stand upon the shoulders of giants!