Behind the Song: On Eagle’s Wings

Father Jan Michael Joncas was returning from a meal with his friend, Doug Hall, when he discovered Hall’s father had died of a heart attack.

Father Joncas longed to find a way to console his friend. In a published  interview he recalled  “I knew this was a hard, hard experience in anybody’s life, [and I] just wanted to create something that would be both prayerful and then comforting,”

Returning to his parents’ Minnesota home, he composed the song on his guitar.

Father Jan Michael Joncas

The basis draws from scripture found in Isaiah 40:31,Psalm 91:4, Exodus 19 and Matthew 13.

But those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength.

They will mount up with wings like eagles.

They will run, and not be weary.

They will walk, and not faint.

He will cover you with his feathers.

Under his wings you will take refuge. (Isaiah 40:31)

Michael Joncas was born in 1951 and ordained to the Roman Catholic Priesthood in 1980.

He held onto the song for several years before submitting it with a group of compositions to a publishers. “I think they had already tagged ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ as the [song] that was going to have the most legs,” Father Joncas said. The song was first recorded in 1979.

He soon began to receive request from other denominations to reproduce the song.

Following the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City of the Federal Building, he received a request for the song to be played by the then governor’s wife, Cathy Keating.

Father Joncas recalled thinking, “Wow, this was way beyond even denominational stuff. This is becoming part of the culture.”

Two years later, Michael Crawford {original Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera”} performed the song on national television.

His greatest surprise, to his delight, was when the song was sung at the funeral of famed operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Father Joncas doesn’t consider On Eagle’s Wings “his best work”, but doesn’t mind “it being his most popular composition.”

He has been pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed by the positive reception of the hymn.

“The number of times people have come up and talked about the song touching them at really tough moments—I am pretty much just blown away by the experience that God can still use that [song] 35 years, 40 years after its creation and still have it impact people’s lives,” Father Joncas said. “But I don’t think it’s me. I really think it’s the fact that it’s Scripture, that the melody then allows this incredibly important scriptural text to hit the heart in a way that it wouldn’t, maybe, if you were just reading it.”

Father Joncas has composed over 300 liturgical songs. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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