Psalm 103 comes up in the psalter for this Wednesday’s Office of Readings .In verse 5, after listing some of God’s blessings–forgives guilt, heals your ills, redeems you, crowns you with love and compassion, fills your life with good things–the psalmist adds, renewing your youth like an eagle’s.
Every time I read this line, I first give the little happy sigh with which I respond to beautiful biblical nature imagery, a mini Hallmark poster of the image flashing in my brain.
Then I stop and say, Wait!… what?
Because I can’t figure out what’s so special about an eagle’s youth. Not his strength, power, beauty, far sight, but his youth.
My first guess–could it be there was a phoenix-type myth going on about eagles that the psalmist had picked up on?
I did a search and found that many people share my question. An interesting “biblical birdwatching” site gave a lengthy description of how many times a bald eagle molts until he acheives the mature, white-head-and-tail plumage at 5 years of age. The evangelical writer considered this molting a kind of renewal. Not bad, but 1. this would teach a lesson about the desirability of the eagle’s maturity, not his youth, and 2. the bald eagle is a North American bird. I don’t know that any eagles of the middle east have so dramatic change in coloration.
Luckily, I remembered that the Fathers of the Church have commented at length on just about every verse of scripture. Good old New Advent has St. Augustine’s comments. Augustine claims that an eagle’s beak tip never stops growing, and that after many years have gone by, it curves down and around the lower mandible such that the eagle would be unable to eat. He grows weak from hunger, and then, in desperation, bashes the end of his beak off against a rock. Once again able to eat, his strength, vigor, and plummage are renewed, and he is once more like a young eagle. Augustine concludes:
…the eagle is not restored unto immortality, but we are unto eternal life; but the similitude is derived from hence, that the rock takes away from us what hinders us. Presume not therefore on your strength: the firmness of the rock rubs off your old age: for that Rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:4 In Christ our youth shall be restored like that of the eagle….
My own knowledge of birds tell me that eagles don’t really need to break off their beaks. I have seen crows and pet parrots rub their beaks against hard material, perhaps to scratch off the top layer of…of…whatever you call the stuff beaks are made of. And I’ve had pet parakeets to need a beak trim when they haven’t had something hard to chew on. Probably eagles wear their beaks down by tearing at the bones of their prey. But as St. Thomas points out, an analogy does not have to be true to be a good analogy.
So it looks like Christ, our rock, rubs off or breaks off our weary, aged sinfulness, and restores to us the youth of our baptismal purity. Enabling us to soar to heaven. On eagles wings the wings of eagles.