Outside of Mass, there are few occasions when I can sing publicly. I usually sing in the shower, but that’s only private practice for celebrations rife with song. I look forward to festivities like Christmas and national independence days (America’s and Poland’s, in my case). They are occasions to sing. My wife and I just celebrated Polish Independence Day on November 11, and we belted out the Polish National Anthem, “Poland Is Not Yet Lost,” and “Bogurodzica,” the first Polish anthem commemorating Mary the Theotokos, the God-bearer, which is still sung every day in Poland and historically sung before every battle with great intent and joy. “Poland Is Not Yet Lost” is one of my favorite anthems. The melody is based on lively mazurka rooted in folk tradition, and the anthem’s lyrics give purpose and meaning to what it means to be a Pole.
National anthems are meant to unify a nation in its identity and propel it forward in time. We will get a good sense of this during this year’s World Cup, taking place right now in Qatar, when fans and national teams join arms to sing their national anthem. And while I agree with Patrick Deneen’s observation that such international celebrations tend to support a homogenous culture that tends to dissolve all actual cultures, I’ll still be singing the national anthems of Poland and America with great pride.
At the same time, Christians will be singing Christmas carols. Such songs remind us of our graced identity in Christ and guide us like the Magi to the great King of Israel. Carols do not get the attention they deserve as a way of handing on the faith, just as anthems hand on national identity. Songs such as these are acts of handing on tradition, and they need special emphasis today when the oblivion induced by mass culture is wiping out traditional, robust identities. Singing traditional hymns is a good way of overcoming oblivion.
Singing is one of the most important things we do as humans. Some have suggested that humans are best described as homo canens, the singing man. In many civilizations, singing and music place us close to the heart of being, especially as a way of communing with God. Throughout the Bible, Israel offers her praise and thanksgiving by singing. Think of the Hebrew people after passing through the Red Sea. Think of King David and his Psalms. Just as the Psalms shaped Israel as a people, songs form individuals into a people and shape their national destinies. Have you ever wondered about the uniting effect of song and how the resonance of singing or mood creates unity among many? Even the bodies of the singers resonate as one with the song, bringing the various voices together around a unifying purpose. Just listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the text of Schiller’s “Ode To Joy” on hand, and you will see what I mean. It’s as if the song brings the people to a culminating destination or purpose. Hopefully, I do not overstate the salvific influence of music, but I am inclined to think it may be a way of helping to heal our growing cultural fragmentation. Perhaps it can be understood like a sacrament in that music, when done right, attunes us to God.
But contemporary popular music often seems to do the opposite, fostering vice and fragmentation. We are far from the ancient wisdom that says music directs the destiny of the community and its individual members when we pay no attention to the musical modes predominant in popular song and their effects on society. Educators ought to relearn the ancient insight into the various musical modes in their role as formators of the youth. In his Politics, Aristotle writes about music as an essential part of education, with virtue—and not entertainment—as its goal: “Just as gymnastics are capable of producing a certain quality of the body, so music is capable of producing a certain ethos.” Aristotle recommended the Dorian mode as conducive to forming the youth in virtue and strength. While the Greeks put music at the heart of formation and education, most contemporary educators see no relation or have not sufficiently considered the relation.
Since the consumption and creation of music has become more and more privatized or used for mere entertainment, we have grown increasingly distant from each other and simultaneously part of a mass. Technology has amplified this. Speakers and headphones have led to a social transformation that we barely understand. There are few common spaces of silence. As Roger Scruton said, “An intrusive noise fills modern life. Gyms, shops, restaurants, and other spaces are filled with such a pulsating noise that silence has made us all uncomfortable.”
But even with today’s privatized listening habits, most of us recognize the importance of song in unifying, strengthening, and rallying a nation, even a soccer team. Song ought to serve the purpose of bringing together individuals into one body. Families, schools, nations, and even the Church in her mystical union with God; all gather in song. Consider the Church with her liturgical song, a gift of the divine love song of the Trinity that gathers us into a communion of love. The nation with the national anthem, recalling the story of a people as they march onward, gathers in song. A school unites with the fight song against all rivals. Song is binding. It joins people together into a “we.”
But such unities created by song must be pondered. They are not all ordered to the good. St. Augustine considers this in his City of God. Sometimes unities, on this side of the eschaton, are false and destructive—based on a lie or violence. These questions came to the fore when several athletes in protest took a knee during the singing of the U.S. National Anthem six years ago. Such a gesture outraged many people because it was seen as a break in unity, an offense to the nation. But such an occasion—I am neither affirming or dismissing it—provoked questions about national history, unity, and justice, which spread like fire to other countries. The English national soccer team, arguably one of the best teams to play in the 2022 World Cup, has taken a knee before every game in their last thirty-three matches. Let’s see if they take a knee in protest of the numerous migrant worker deaths in Qatar, workers who built the stadiums for this sporting event. Soccer fans in Germany are already taking issue with the games in Qatar for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of human rights violations and not embracing a certain way of life. Even members of the US national soccer team intend to badge themselves with the rainbow flag in protest. I wonder what anthem they will sing. But, despite all the protests, many nations will continue to take pride in singing their national anthems.
With Christmas approaching, Christians will be singing Christmas carols, as well as Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” As every child knows, Christmas carols bring us together in joy, ultimately as praise. We join our voices to the choir of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14), for in God we find the deep, holy resonance in which desire finds its rest. There is so much chatter about evangelization and ways of reaching the unaffiliated that I’m reluctant to list caroling, but I cannot think of a better way of proclaiming the Gospel. I distinctly remember Christmas carolers singing in front of my uncle’s house on Christmas Eve in Oak Park, Illinois. Thinking of it brings me joy, and it is one of my earliest memories. Yet, sadly, I have never seen a group of traveling carolers again. Recovering such a tradition might be a good way of evangelizing during the Christmas season.
In his excellent book Resonance, German sociologist Hartmut Rosa comments on certain physicists' understanding of the basic structure of the universe as “nothing but music.” This is very similar to the classical worldview of the cosmos as a sacred song. It is a view that Tolkien incorporates in the creation account in The Silmarillion with the Music of the Ainur. In our age—especially in the West, where the commitment to traditional religion has, in many ways, moved to sports—we are still allowed to sing national anthems and Christmas songs without much opposition. Perhaps the singing of the national anthems during the World Cup, uniting national soccer fans from all over the world together to cheer on the team, will remind us of the primordial song unifying the whole cosmos, waiting for man as priest to intone the song of divine praise to God. Such an imaginary is a way of overcoming what Rosa calls “the mute world of modernity.”
The ancients knew that music puts people into a certain mood (in German, Stimmung). National anthems encourage us to cheer for the national team. Traditional Christmas carols—not commercial Christmas songs that inspire nothing but superficiality—make our hearts ready for the coming of the Lord. It just takes one of us to start singing such traditional carols to put everyone in the mood. I am happy to say—my wife can confirm this and perhaps my neighbors too—that I have been getting ready for the season. Feel free to join me this year to joyfully sing and proclaim the coming of the Lord.