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  • Reverend James Squire

On Eagles Wings

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Many were struck by President Elect Biden concluding his address to the American people on Saturday night with words from the hymn, On Eagles Wings. It is a hymn composed by Jan Michael Jones, a Catholic priest, in 1970 and is a favorite to many including me. We hear it often in the Mass of Christian Burial in the Roman Catholic tradition as well as in the Episcopalian tradition. I define a favorite as a hymn or song that stays with me long after I have heard it and find myself humming it throughout the day.

Its text is based in the book of the prophet Isaiah with the following refrain: “And he will raise you up on eagles wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.” Those words are based in Isaiah 40:31: “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not grow faint.”

Why are the words of this hymn just right to be said at the end of Joe Biden’s remarks? The Biden Family chose this hymn to be sung at Beau Biden’s Mass of Christian Burial in 2015. We know that the memory of his son walks with him in everything that he does. He may have known that the hymn was one of the favorites of John F. Kennedy. I often taught students that they should remember the Eagles Wing passage from Isaiah for two other very important reasons.

The words were written during the Babylonian Captivity when the Jewish people were taken from their land in Judah to Babylon, the capitol of the Empire. It was a different land with different laws. I believe that over half of the American people, particularly people of color, have felt that they have been in exile during their past, and feeling this more explicitly during the past four years.

The Isaiah passage has its roots in the book of Deuteronomy 32:11: “like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.”

My family and I are blessed to witness eagles nesting in the trees on our property and see them soar high above the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. There are times that the winds pick up under their wings, spread ready to catch and carry anything aloft. They barely have to flap their wings as they find the right currents of the wind and soar with little effort. They are at one with nature. One of the interpretations of this passage is that we have to be more than strong, we must also be righteous. The American Eagle was chosen as our national symbol in 1782 because of its strength but also because it represents the ingredients that produce freedom…freedom to soar with integrity and care for those who are in need of care. President elect Biden couldn’t have chosen a better hymn to point to America’s future.

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