Here is a Lenten "twofer." The first hymn, which lends its first line in German to the title of its tune, is a beautiful sermon on Christ's Passion out of the period of the Lutheran Reformation. Its author is Sebald Heyden (1499-1561), a Lutheran schoolmaster and cantor who regularly associated with Hans Sachs and Albrecht Dürer and who taught Nikolaus Selnecker his three R's. He is mostly remembered for this hymn, comprising the first and last out of originally 23 stanzas. The present translation is by the same John Theodore Mueller whose one-volume Christian Dogmatics has saved generations of Missouri-Synod seminarians the trouble of reading all three volumes of Francis Pieper's ditto (hence its nickname, "Cheater-Pieper").
By the number of organ chorale-preludes on this hymn, written by many noteworthy Lutheran composers, I gather that it was historically a very important Lenten hymn in German Lutheran circles. Among these musical tributes is a decorated-chorale masterpiece in J.S. Bach's Orgelbüchlein which I consider it my joyful duty as a Lutheran organist to play at least once every Lenten season. The tune was appropriated from a Calvinist Psalter and wedded to this hymn by the 18th-century hymnal compiler J. A. Freylinghausen, whose contributions to Lutheran church music I am not ashamed to appreciate even though he was a leading Pietist. (See? I'm not a complete bigot!)
For some reason, however, this hymn has hardly flourished in the Anglophone world. I know of only one American hymnal that has it (the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary of 1996). Perhaps to my discredit, I'm the type of musical repristinator who thinks hymns like this should be taught to people, at least so that they understand what it means when such a richly-freighted musical symbol gets flashed at them. There are other reasons to revive it, of course. For example, it begins with the best possible opening gambit for Lent and Passiontide: a universal call to repentance. Then it ties up the whole Gospel, from Christ's incarnation to His death on the cross, in God's love toward sinners. Our guilt has been removed and laid on Jesus; by this substitution, He has laid salvation on us. And that's just Stanza 1! Stanza 2 writhes and revels in the paradox that the injustice and agony that Jesus suffered are the most glorious work of an almighty, merciful, righteous Lord whose sacrifice for us is worthy of everlasting praise.
The second hymn is, if anything, an even rarer treasure among American Lutherans; for my research to-date has only located it in one hymnal, and that in Australia. Nevertheless, its pedigree is even farther from the pietism I so delight in lampooning. Its author, Valentin Ernst Löscher (1673-1749), was a member of the "orthodox Lutheran" party that duked it out with the Pietists in the early 18th century. He himself wrote some of the most notable (not to say notorious) anti-pietistic polemics of his time.
Yet, interestingly, his hymn has many of characteristics that critics of Bach and Gerhardt foolishly label as symptoms of pietism. For example, in contrast to Heyden's hymn, Löscher expresses himself in the first-person singular. In a movingly personal testimony of faith, he responds to the Passion of Jesus, even going so far as to declare: "To Thee, O Lord, I yield my heart..." He takes care to describe faith as an active thing that one "holds" along the "way" that Christ's death has opened between us and Paradise: "The strength to dare and to endure, The faith to fail Thee never..." If I didn't know better, I would say that Löscher meant for these two stanzas to disprove every slander Pietists ever levied against orthodox Lutheranism. "Dead orthodoxy?" Nothing could be farther from it!
In passing I have already described whence the tune came. Now a word on whither it should go: With both of these hymns, into every congregation that loves the sung confession of the historic Lutheran faith. It's a beautiful, perfectly structured melody in the "bar form" of which I have previously spoken. Its "major" modality may be a little surprising in a Passion hymn, but you might find that some of the most touching moments in musical art happen when sorrow modulates into a major key. If "O MENSCH, BEWEIN" has one minor fault, it is the first phrase's accidental similarity to that of "LASST UNS ERFREUEN" ("A hymn of glory let us sing," etc.), a likeness that might trip up some singers who are familiar only with the latter. On the other hand, this might make it even more memorable. Also, the half-note rhythm at the beginning of each phrase is historically negotiable; I think the last three phrases especially could benefit from shortening those initial notes.
Negotiation is the name of the game. Negotiate with your choir about singing a simple arrangement of this hymn next Lent. Maybe a not-so-simple arrangement the Lent after that. Play the chorale preludes on it by J. S. Bach, Johann Pachelbel, J. P. Sweelinck, Max Reger, and Helmut Walcha, for starters. Print the lyrics in the service bulletin so the congregation can read along while you play. Sing it as a solo, accompanied by yourself, during the distribution of the Lord's Supper, if you have the voice for it. Negotiate a way to bring this beautiful tune, together with these two beautiful Lenten hymns, out of the minor leagues and into your Lutheran congregation's core repertoire, where they belong.