Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “On Eagle’s Wings”

History of Hymns: “On Eagle’s Wings”

By C. Michael Hawn

“On Eagle’s Wings,” by Michael Joncas;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 143

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.*

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4, NRSV).

Many recent composers for the church draw from biblical sources, making allusions to specific images. Father Jan Michael Joncas (b. 1951) uses the providential image of “eagle’s wings” as the anchor metaphor for his widely sung refrain. This refrain is a response for Psalm 91, usually sung by a cantor.

In a presentation for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) convention in Long Beach in 1989, Joncas stated, “Scripture grounds my life as a Christian, a preacher, and a priest” (Joncas, GIA Publications, Inc. website). “On Eagles’ Wings” is an example of the high scriptural content of Fr. Joncas’s compositions. The composition appeared first in the liturgical music collection On Eagles’ Wings in 1979.

Dr. Joncas is one of the most prominent liturgical scholars and musicians in Catholic music today. He was granted the BA (English) magna cum laude from St. Thomas College, St. Paul, Minnesota (1975), the MA (Liturgical Studies) summa cum laude from University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana (1978), and the SLL and SLD summa cum laude from the Pontificio Istituto Liturgico at the Collegio Sant’Anselmo (Roma, Italia) in 1989 and 1991, respectively.

Fr. Joncas has published widely in liturgical journals, written books, and composed and recorded numerous collections of liturgical music. He served as co-editor of Gather, one of the most widely used collections of liturgical music in Catholic parishes. He has served in parish ministry and is currently serving as University Artist-in-Residence and Fellow, Center for Catholic Studies, in the Department of Catholic Studies, University of St. Thomas.

The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) was the first major Protestant hymnal to include the refrain, “On Eagle’s Wings.” The only changes were the substitution of “God” and “God’s” for “He” and “His” for inclusive language purposes. Many Protestant congregations might view this song as a chorus or praise song. The roots are, in fact, much different. The song was written in 1978 as Joncas was concluding his MA in liturgy from Notre Dame. He was ordained in 1980 as a priest for the archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

While serving in Minnesota, Fr. Joncas collaborated with two of his colleagues, Marty Haugen (b. 1950) and David Haas (b. 1957), in producing some of the most effective music for the church’s worship that has appeared in the days following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This music written for the Catholic liturgy should not be confused with shorter choruses composed by contemporary Christian artists whose roots are in evangelical Christianity. At the National Pastoral Musicians conference in Long Beach, Fr. Joncas noted, “We pastoral musicians do not sing to entertain bored worshipers or to seduce them into brainless ecstasy; we may sing in the Spirit, but we also sing with our minds” (Joncas, GIA Publications, Inc. website).

In the Catholic liturgy, “On Eagle’s Wings” would be used most often on Sundays when the lectionary calls for Psalm 91. Joncas’s solo setting of the psalm for cantor is not included in The United Methodist Hymnal. The refrain allows the congregation to participate more fully in the singing of the psalm.

Most Protestant congregations know only the refrain. The beautiful, soaring melodic line and the rich, providential images of the text allow it to stand on its own. “On Eagle’s Wings” is often used in United Methodist worship as a congregational response to the benediction at the conclusion of the service. It also has a broader use, being sung at many 9/11 memorial services and at the memorial service for those who died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

How music will be used once it is published may be much different from what the composer intended. In correspondence with this writer, Fr. Joncas noted, “I wasn’t aware that by printing only the refrain in [The United] Methodist Hymnal, members of that denomination treat it more as a detachable benediction than a verse/refrain setting of Psalm 91.”

Consider using the refrain as a response to Psalm 91 as well. Listen to the complete version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7FbycDXxXk.

*© 1979, OCP Publications, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For further reading:

Michael Joncas, GIA Publications, Inc. Accessed November 1, 2017. https://www.giamusic.com/bios/joncas_michael.cfm.


C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

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