A reflection on the Readings for June 18, 2023, the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the first reading today, God tells Moses,

“You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you here to myself.”

It is one of two similar references in scripture; the other comes from the prophet Isaiah,

“They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.”

Of course, you are probably most familiar with that biblical image from the famous hymn On Eagles Wings, composed by Fr. Michael Joncas in the 1970s. That hymn has become a staple of Catholic liturgy, especially funerals, with tears welling in peoples’ eyes from the very mention of the title. It was played at the memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing, sung (in Italian) at Luciano Pavarotti’s funeral, and even quoted in Joe Biden’s inaugural presidential address.

Hymns written in the 1970s often get a bad rap and are criticized in some circles as theologically empty. However, that critique is difficult to level in this case, as nearly every line of the song is a quote from scripture. What about the most famous line that calls from both Exodus and Isaiah, “…and I will raise you up on eagles wings?” What does it mean?

The first of the above passages references the past, God reminding Moses how he lifted the people of Israel in their most dire time of need. The entire story of the Exodus is seen as the process of God raising a people from slavery and drawing them close to himself. Israel’s rescue from Egypt is thus not simply salvation from earthly bondage but an elevation to a divine destiny. Likewise, the image of being carried to God’s presence on the wings of an eagle reminds Israel that this is not a “lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps situation.” Israel did not ascend to its present status by its own worthiness but was carried by God and God’s agents.

The other passage references the future, with God providing Isaiah a vision of hope for his people. The point here is that God lifts his people beyond their natural capabilities, beyond the heights they believe they can reach. Israel in this moment is stuck in a seemingly impossible situation. They are in exile at the mercy of a much more powerful nation. Separated from their homes and holy sites, after all political and military recourse has failed, the situation seems hopeless. Isaiah relays to them the message that their God will lift them and, while it seems inconceivable, he will provide the necessary strength to forge a future.

This double image of being lifted up on eagles’ wings is especially powerful when connected to the Gospel, which tells the story of Jesus calling his apostles and sending them out into the world. They knew, as we should know, that his grace makes us capable of things we never thought we could accomplish on our own. When we do not believe we have the strength or the gifts to do great things, we do not consider that it is not simply us working but God working in us. And as Jesus tells us in another passage, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

When facing the challenges of living the faith or staring down a seemingly impossible situation, always remember that if you live and act in God’s grace, all things are possible because he will lift you up on eagles’ wings.

Photo by Rachel McDermott on Unsplash 

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Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.

You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.

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