02/12/2011 09:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2011

The Sacred Nature of Music

Christina Aguilera's widely panned performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the start of Super Bowl XLV reminds us of the sacred nature of music. The world's religions have long recognized the power of song in worship. On Super Bowl Sunday 2011, it became clear that, even in fiercely secular America, a song can still assume a sacramental aura demanding obeisance and a standard of execution above the ordinary.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" may be the only song in American life that can turn the most passive listener into a raging zealot. Singing it off-key can be sacrilegious. Forgetting the words might qualify as heresy. Aguilera transgressed in both respects -- slightly in the former, greatly in the latter -- and repented immediately with a revealing explanation: "I got so lost in the moment of the song that I lost my place. I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through."

Aguilera's confession stops just short of an apology. She fervently affirms, however, not only her "love for this country" but also the "true spirit of its anthem." In addressing the anthem's "true spirit," she identifies the very part of the song that points beyond itself -- and even her own much-anticipated performance -- to something bigger. In short, she identifies its sacred nature: that inviolable part of the song that (one hopes) will remain intact despite her transgressions.

Professional football may be the closest thing that the United States has to an organized state religion. After an "advent season" of Wildcard Weekends, Divisional Playoffs and Conference Championships, this year's Super Bowl Sunday seemed bigger than Christmas, drawing a record 111 million viewers. The object of worship is not so much the game, the players or the coaches as it is the commerce sustaining them. The steady stream of much-hyped, half-time commercials reminds us that capital is the golden calf. Aguilera's opening anthem on one of America's biggest feast days was roundly criticized because it fell short of a proper offering.

It would be interesting to see what a cultural historian might say about our veneration of the national anthem 500 years from now. She might note that it seemed to matter little that the tune originated in a mid-19th century English gentlemen's club. (In that respect it is literally, strictly speaking, "un-American.") She might marvel at the fact that the average person on the street could not say who composed the lyrics, when and for what; or that most people did not realize that there were additional verses beyond the first stanza. By those lights, our future cultural historian would surely exhaust countless hours trying to make sense of the curious penalties and outcries that could emerge from an unexceptional performance of a "sacred song" that nobody really seemed to know.

Five hundred years ago, Spanish settlers commented with marked curiosity on the sacred nature of certain types of music among the Aztecs they encountered. Toribio de Benavente, a Catholic priest of the Order of St. Francis who arrived in Mexico in 1524, noted the special role of music in praising the Aztec gods. Bernardino de Sahagún, another Franciscan priest and a leading intellectual of 16th-century Mexico, recorded for posterity the alarming penalty for a musical misstep during a high Aztec feast day. "If one of the singers made a mistake in singing," Sahagún recalled, "the chieftain ordered him seized and the next day had him summarily executed."

Thankfully, Aguilera will emerge from this crisis relatively unscathed. But it is interesting to note our parallel (if more civilized) response to a musical fumble on one of our most celebrated feast days. The Aztecs of ancient America demanded the best music on days that celebrated Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca and Tlaloc. Modern America demands no less on an event brought to us by Bridgestone, Doritos and Volkswagen.

The national anthem on Super Bowl Sunday serves to remind us that music matters and that, under the right circumstances, we can take it very seriously. It is a great irony that the genuinely sacred songs of our churches, on Super Bowl Sunday and every other Sunday of the year, garner considerably less passion from us. What glorious sounds we might hear if we cared even half as much about the Psalms that Christ sang, the hymns that unfold in the very presence of the living God, the Sanctus that literally joins our heavenly and earthly choirs in an unending song of praise. Those are the songs that -- far and above all others -- demand a true obeisance and standard of performance above the ordinary.

Taking a cue from Aguilera, I can only hope that God has not judged my love for Him according to those times when I have sung badly or begrudgingly at Mass. Or worse still, those occassions when I have refused to sing at all. Christina Aguilera might have flubbed the national anthem but her repentant attitude sets a good example before us. It would not hurt to take notice of that, too. Laus Deo.