“And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.” The words are familiar to most of us as the refrain from the popular hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.” The hymn was composed in 1976 by a Catholic priest, Michael Joncas, and has become one of the standards in Catholic, mainline Protestant and Pentecostal churches.
The lyrics are based on Scripture, particularly Psalm 91, Exodus 19 and Matthew 13. The image conveyed is that God embraces us and with his grace lifts us up to great heights. He instills in us his goodness and love so that we can be a light in the world for others all the while being held in his loving embrace.
The hymn came to mind when reflecting on the Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy. Jesus speaks of himself and the Father as “one.” It is through Jesus that God the Father is made known to us and invites us to life. In other words, Jesus is the shepherd who gathers the flock together and leads them to the Father, and in the divine embrace they find love. He says: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”
Jesus gathers us and holds us in that loving embrace. The loving embrace by God elicits a proclamation of faith similar to when St. Paul writes: “In him we live and move and have our being.” Being held in the hand of God is an image for being one with him sharing in the divine life he offers. His sacrifice of thanksgiving which is his life is the means through which he gathers, embraces and draws us into divine life, a life of love.
The joy we experience in his love is one that is meant to be shared. God has big hands. He wants everyone to share in the life and love he offers. The saving mission of Jesus does not end with his death and resurrection, it continues today. Jesus uses us to proclaim his word. Jesus uses our hands to lead others into that loving embrace.
Readings from the Acts of the Apostles are used for the first reading at Masses during the Easter season. As we listen to them we hear the stories of how Christ in the members of the nascent church “shine like the sun” in proclaiming the resurrection. They start in Jerusalem and move out, first in Judea, then Syria and the Holy Land, then into Asia Minor, then to Europe and eventually arrive at Rome.
The passage from Acts for Sunday’s reading highlights an important aspect of the mission — all nations and peoples are invited into the loving embrace of God. Paul and Barnabas are in Antioch (in Pisidia). While they use sharp words against some of the Jews who have rejected the proclamation, it is important to note that despite the strong language, the mission to the Jews continues and they regularly go out to proclaim in the synagogues and among their fellow Jews.
However, the mission to the gentiles (non-Jews) gains attention here. The mission to all peoples has been prepared for by Jesus himself. He has come that all might be welcomed into that loving embrace.
We can think back to the birth of the Lord and the arrival of the magi as an example — the magi were gentiles — or the centurion who showed great faith, which is acknowledged and acclaimed by Jesus as two easily remembered examples. All human beings regardless of nation or ethnicity, race or language are called and embraced.
The Book of Revelation points to the culmination of God’s loving embrace. At the end of time when all are raised and gather before the throne of God there will be “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.” The vision that John describes is one of victory and triumph.
All the faithful now share in the victory of Christ over death. They are raised, dressed in the white robes (image of baptism) and stand before the Lamb (Jesus, the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”) and worship (palm branches).
It is here that the loving embrace reaches its perfection or completion. John hears the message: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
God loves us. He embraces us. He shines in us when we love. He lifts us up and sends us forth to proclaim and share that same love. He gathers us together and makes us one with him in his Father’s love. In the words of the hymn: “He will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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