Christmas Eve Homily
The Eagles of Coeur d’Alene
We have heard the Christmas story as told by the Gospel of Luke as we lit the Advent Candles. Even though we all know the story and could probably recite most of it by heart, it is still nice to hear it again and again. It’s like you never really get tired of hearing it.
I wanted to tell you about something else that I never get tired of. That something is photographing Bald Eagles. I just think they are the most majestic and almost magical creatures. I love to watch them fly, and soar, I like to watch them in trees and there are even a couple of on-line cameras where you can log in and watch them in a nest and wait for eggs to hatch. When the little ones come out it is particularly fun.
So I love eagles and love to take pictures of eagles. Every year there is a unique opportunity to photograph eagles not that far from here. I try to go almost every year, even though I already have tons of pictures of eagles, it is always a unique experience and I almost always get at least one or two pictures that are unique in some way. It is kind of like hearing the Christmas story again each Christmas eve. It is something that I just don’t get tired of.
Now in case you are wondering, each December, usually around the third week in December to be exact, there is a huge increase in the eagle population around Lake Coeur d’Alene. There is a special bay area where the kokanee salmon come to spawn, and of course after they spawn, the salmon die. This large population of not very mobile fish attract the eagles. This stop seems to be on the migration route as a large number of eagles from the interior of Alaska and Canada head south for the winter. The population begins to increase in early December, but by the 20th or so, there can be as many as 200 or more Bald Eagles all concentrated around this one particular part of the lake. It is awesome.
A good friend of mine, who also enjoys photography had never been up to Lake Coeur d’Alene to see the eagles. So as I was telling him about what it was like, he wanted to go and experience it for himself. Of course, I didn’t argue. So last Saturday, even though it was about 4 degrees when we got there, we went to Lake Coeur d’Alene and photographed the eagles.
I can tell you that there just isn’t anything like actually being there. You can tell someone about it, but it is not the same as actually experiencing for yourself. The eagles are literally everywhere you look; they are in the trees, they are in the air, some are hitting the water picking up a kokanee and others are soaring. Sometimes you will see 3 or 4 or more all sharing the best roosting spot for surveying the fishing grounds. Like I said, even with the help of pictures, there isn’t anything that compares to actually witnessing this for yourself.
Which brings me to my first point. You might be wondering why I’m talking about eagles on Christmas. Well, believe it or not, I find a lot of parallels to the eagle experience and the Christmas story.
One of the main ideas of the Christmas message is that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. There wasn’t any substitute for actually becoming human. If God was going to perfectly relate to all of our needs and emotions, our struggles and our anguish, our triumphs and our ultimate lows, the only way to fully experience that was to become human for a time. Just like the eagles; you can tell someone about it, but it’s not like being there.
Another basic message that I hear every time I hear the Christmas story is I her a message of hope and renewal, a message of new beginnings and new ways to connect with God. The Christmas story for me represents a new start.
I feel that way every time I see an eagle as well. You know we almost lost these birds entirely. In the 1960’s and the 1970’s the Bald Eagle population was so low that many feared they would die out and become extinct. I remember being told in elementary school that the symbol of our country was so rare that I would probably never have the chance to see one. At least not in the wild, but maybe at a zoo or game preserve. Our efforts to renew the eagle population have been so successful that in 2007 they were removed from the endangered species list. The have been given renewal, they have been given a fresh start, they have been given a new beginning-and I think about all that every time I see one. And I think of the new beginnings in the Christmas story as well.
One of the things which I find amazing is that all these eagles show up to this particular spot on the planet at this particular time of year. Now think about this; if you were asked to show up at a certain address say in Wasilla, Alaska between December 15th and December 20th you could probably find a way to do that. But what if I were to tell you that for the entire year preceding those dates you would not be able to look at a calendar. What if I were to tell you that when you left for Wasilla, Alaska that you couldn’t use a map? What if you just had to go? How do you think you would do?
Yet, that is what the eagles do. They have no calendar, they have no map, I’m certain they don’t follow a highway or any visual signs and yet they show up at the same place and the same time every year. The eagles are not the only birds that do this by the way, but what kind of guidance system do you suppose they use?
Once again, this reminds me of the Christmas story. There were three wise men that visited the Christ child because they had a guidance system. They were able to follow a star. What do the eagles follow? The eagles have an internal guidance system; and that also reminds me of the Christmas story. It is the internal guidance system which was made available to us all that Christmas day when Jesus was born, it is the internal guidance system which connects us to the story tonight and it is the internal guidance system which will connect us to the Divine spirit in the days ahead. If you doubt the validity of an internal guidance system, just consider the eagles.
There are many other facets of a visit to see the eagles that remind me of the Christmas story and remind me of my relationship with Jesus, but time does not allow me to share them all, so maybe just a couple of quick points. Eagles have remarkable vision. The eye of the eagle is very complex, it can actually look in two different directions at once out of the same eye. There are two focus planes which allow the eagle to do this. But what is remarkable is that the eagle can also combine the two focus planes into a single vision that allows an eagle to see something the size of a rabbit running from a distance of about three miles. When the true messages of Christmas begin to sink in and we connect with God in new ways, we too, suddenly have improved vision and greater insight.
As I visit the eagles each year I am also reminded of how connected everything is. The life cycle of the kokanee salmon makes the eagle event possible. The end of the life of the kokanee also brings new life to the eagles. The sacrifice, in a way, of the kokanee offers life to the eagles. All these parallel the life and birth and execution of Jesus. It may seem odd to talk about eagles on Christmas Eve, but for me, it makes perfect sense.
Allow me to close this evening with a favorite passage of mine from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 40: 28-31 we find these words:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Go in peace and go with God. Amen.