The Second Vatican Council emphasized a greater appreciation for the contours of the local church, firmly rooted in the culture and community in which believers affirm their faith in the Risen One. And because of that commitment, to fulfill the call that Pope Francis has repeatedly made for both theologians and bishops to share the “smell of their sheep” and to care about their joys, anguishes, and emotional investments, there is no better week to investigate the significance of eagles in our salvation history.
The Scriptures are replete with images of eagles, dating back to eras well before the Roman Empire came to utilize the symbol in their military conquest of the ancient world.
Because eagles were common in the ancient Israelite world, they were often cited by Yahweh’s people as representative animals known for their power, agility, and protection. It is a little-known fact outside of zoological circles that eagles are monogamous to one partner until death, returning yearly to their mates. Thus, they were cited in various Old Testament texts as symbolizing God’s unwavering fidelity to his people, despite their constant spiritual wanderlust where they prostituted themselves before idols, both political and religious.
Like the eagle, God’s willingness to return and protect those in his care with a sheltering wingspan against deadly gusts and surrounding foes remains constant.
Think of Deuteronomy 32:10-11: “In a desert land he found [Jacob]; in a barren and howling wasteland. He shielded and cared for him….Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, That spreads its wings to catch them, and carries them aloft.”
If you’ve been to a Catholic funeral in the last 20 years, chances are good that you too have sung your hope that God will raise the deceased (and us) “on eagles’ wings, and bear them on the breath of dawn… under his wings your refuge, his faithfulness your shield.”
Later in Christian history, the four creatures in Ezekiel came to be associated with the authors of the four Gospels: the angelic man, the lion, the ox and the eagle. The last has come to be commonly connected with the theology of Saint John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple who is also traditionally associated with the theology of the Book of Revelation.
Scholars admit lines of continuity between them, but debate whether the same individual author in fact penned that last book of the Bible, the Gospel and the Johannine letters. Yet all three of these texts are associated with the eagle. Various interpretations exist as to why John became symbolized by this winged creature, whether it be due to his lofty and soaring theological statements about the Incarnation (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….), or the exaggerated tradition that the eagle could stare directly at the glory of the sun without damaging its eyes.
Without devolving into silliness or blasphemy, and recognizing the dangers that tribalism has played in our lives both historically and of late, we can use moments of incredible consolation (such as this week) to contemplate profound realities, whether that be the transitory nature of passed generations who “longed to see what we have seen, but did not see it,” or the roots of the term “underdog” in Reconstruction-era America for those downtrodden members of society fighting for recognition and their share of the tables of plenty (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass both used the term in describing the history of African Americans in our nation).
The week, our community shouts with exultation: “Praise the Lord, my soul…who satisfies your desires with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the Eagle’s” (Ps 103:5).
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.