Go Iceland!

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Hallgrímskirkja, June 2016

Mark Silk

Hallgrímskirkja, June 2016

The day before Iceland stunned the soccer world by dispatching England 2-1 in the European championship, we wandered up to the landmark Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik to check out the music at the 11 o’clock service. The organist and choir were everything you could hope for in a high-end Lutheran church. More noteworthy was parish priest Sigurður Árni Þórðarson’s sermon on the Icelandic national anthem, “Lofsöngur” (“Hymn”).

Titled “Áfram Ísland” (“Go Iceland”), the sermon begins by remarking on how, because of their soccer team’s amazing success, hundreds of thousands of Icelanders are now singing “Lofsöngur” at home as well as in the French stadiums. Even Danes, whose normally fine team failed to make the tournament this year, are learning and singing it.

What makes this remarkable is not just that “Lofsöngur” is hard to sing — spanning a wider interval than even the “Star Spangled Banner.” In a country where only ten percent of the population goes to church once a month or more, Pastor Sigurður Árni is blown away by the many fans lustily proclaiming:

Oh, God of our country! Oh, our country’s God!
We worship Thy name in its wonder sublime.
The suns of the heavens are set in Thy crown
By Thy legions, the ages of time!

“Lofsöngur” was written by the priest-poet Matthías Jochumsson to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the Norse settlement of the island in 1874, and first performed at the national cathedral on the occasion of a visit that year by the king of Denmark, who was also king of Iceland. In recent years, its overt religiosity — it’s a hymn to God, after all — has caused some to urge the substitution of a more secular patriotic song.

But Sigurður Árni, who got his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, responds (with a tip of the hat to the late Robert Bellah) by citing the civil religious role of national anthems. Matthías Jochumsson’s religious language is, he says, sufficiently non-specific that Muslims, Hindus, and even agnostics can embrace its message.

I’m not sure I can quite go along with that. Still, the established Church of Iceland is a pretty inclusive institution. At Hallgrímskirkja, the Eucharist is open to all.

What for my money is particularly appealing about “Lofsöngur” is less its “Under God” inclusiveness than its modesty about the human condition. Its last lines read:

Our life is a feeble and quivering reed;
We perish, deprived of Thy spirit and light
To redeem and uphold in our need.
Inspire us at morn with Thy courage and love,
And lead through the days of our strife!
At evening send peace from Thy heaven above,
And safeguard our nation through life.
Iceland’s thousand years,
Iceland’s thousand years!
O, prosper our people, diminish our tears
And guide, in Thy wisdom, through life!

As Sigurður Árni points out, this is a song about hope in the face of trauma and death, in a country which for much of its history the population had to struggle just to get through the winter. Far from a militaristic call to defeat others, it’s one that recognizes that victory in this world is short-lived at best.

On Sunday, the Nordic David goes up against another Goliath, home team France. Áfram Ísland!