For a little more than half of America, Saturday was a day for celebrating. As soon as major news outlets called the presidential election, city streets burst into music, chants, and dance. It looked like these revelers had won the World Series — or a world war.
A jolt of reality arrived near the end of Joe Biden’s victory speech that night, when the president-elect recited a song many Christians associate with their darkest moments of despair. Written in 1976 by the Rev. Jan Michael Joncas, "On Eagle’s Wings” is standard repertoire at funerals, especially for Catholics like Biden. It was a reminder of the 230,000 (and counting) US lives lost to COVID-19.
“Every line is directly taken from scripture,” Joncas explained of his song Monday via Zoom. The hymn’s verses follow Psalm 91, a passage from the Old Testament promising the protection of a higher power. As for the emotional refrain — “He will raise you up on eagle’s wings/bear you on the breath of dawn/make you to shine like the sun” — it borrows language from various Bible verses. Add a pretty little harmony and “On Eagle’s Wings” is famous for inspiring a good cry just when needed most.
Joncas is an artist-in-residence and research fellow in Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. We reached him at his office to talk about the hymn and its big moment in politics.
Q. Were you watching when President-elect Biden recited your hymn?
A. I was. I’ve heard that he’s used the hymn in other speeches. I actually saw him use it at a funeral for a fairly important figure; I believe it was [Georgia congressman] John Lewis. So I was delighted when Biden chose it for what seemed like an acceptance speech.
Q. Tell me about the origin of the song.
A. After college, I remained friends with a lot of the guys I went to [seminary] with. One of them was named Doug Hall, who was from Omaha. And he went on to Theological College in Washington, D.C. And so I went out to visit him. We went out to dinner one night. And when we came back, there was a message that his dad had had a heart attack. Between that night and the wake service is when the song was created.
Q. I grew up hearing the song at funerals. I always interpreted the lyrics to be about ascending into heaven. But Biden implied another meaning — that faith can sustain us; it can lift us to a higher place. What does the song mean to you?
A. Aha! Because it’s scriptural — all the things that I use to interpret scripture I use to interpret the text. For Catholics, most texts of the Bible don’t have single interpretations. So for me, it can mean exactly what President-elect Biden says; it’s the lifting up of a nation. Not moving into heaven but moving forward in its visions, its ideals.
Q. I saw that Lana Del Rey sang your song very beautifully and posted it to Instagram after Biden’s speech. Do you have a favorite rendition or recording?
View this post on Instagram
Hey guys well as promised we are getting a Headstart on that album of standard folk songs and all things americana, but we took a break to watch the Biden speech and he mentioned at the end of it to hymn that he hoped gave Americans hope so I thought I would just give a little version of that as we took a break in the studio. @zachary_dawes @_dean_reid_
A. There are just too many! It’s been done multiple times, in multiple languages. When the opera singer Luciano Pavarotti died [in 2007], I was watching his funeral on RAI, the Italian public media service. The choir finished up a piece by [Luigi] Cherubini. And then suddenly, the solo soprano started singing “su ali d’aquila.” On the wings of an eagle. And to think! When Pavarotti died they sang my song but all in Italian.
Q. It was this moment of dissonance, to hear Biden quote your hymn amid all the celebration. And because he mentioned it was a favorite of his late son Beau, it was also a reminder that we’ve elected a man who is grieving.
A. I heard it was sung at Beau Biden’s funeral [in 2015]. I think that’s part of why it connects for Joe. The other thing is, songs are multivalent. Even though lots of people connect the song with funerals, it has been sung at baptisms. At weddings. At regular church services. It kind of floats the way scripture does.
Q. What message do you hope Americans take from it today?
A. I hope God uses the song as a vehicle for healing divisions in our culture. And to help people see what future is being offered to us. To not be stuck in the present or the past.
Interview was condensed and edited.