Some of the best advice I ever came across regarding homily preparation was in an essay written by Annie Dillard. In the essay Dillard made use of the imagery of following bees as a way of exploring the adventure of writing. If you want to find a bee hive (and honey) then follow a bee. If you lose sight of the first bee then wait and when you catch sight of another bee follow it. By so doing you will eventually be led to the bee hive. The same is true for writing. When an idea or thought, no matter how strange or non-sensical it seems at the outset, pops in your head then follow it. Let the thought lead you even if you do not know exactly where it is going. It may take you to where you want to go. If it takes you only so far then stay there and wait for the next thought.
When I begin to pray over the readings I try to pay attention to what “pops” for me. It might be an image or a phrase or a play of words. Then I try to let that lead me. It may take me all the way to where I want to go or it may not. It may take me only so far. It may take me to another thought (sometimes one which I was not even expecting) or a book I once read, or a movie scene or a song lyric or a memory. There are many times that I sit down to write out a homily following that first “pop” that I really have no idea where I am ultimately going or I end up in a spot I did not think I would end up at.
Following bees takes patience, trust and faith. Following a star also takes patience, trust and faith. But certainly there is a difference. A bee is a small thing, easily overlooked and lost, and the star of Bethlehem must have shown bright for all to see. The gospel (Mt. 2:1-12) tells us that the magi from the East recognized the star but it seems that all of Jerusalem was oblivious. Herod, after all, had to ascertain from the magi the time of the star’s appearance. Apparently, the star had not really made much of an impression upon Jerusalem. Maybe the star of Bethlehem was not as bright and overpowering as we so often assume from Christmas imagery? Maybe it takes more faith, more trust and more patience to follow a smaller star than a larger and brighter one? Yet the magi followed. They raised their eyes to the heavens and saw the star and they followed.
In the first reading (Is. 60:1-6) we hear the prophet Isaiah admonishing Jerusalem to rise up! Yes, darkness covers the earth and there are thick clouds that envelop the people but the light has come! “Raise your eyes and look about,” proclaims the prophet. Yes the light has come but for our part we must raise our eyes. We can almost say that Jerusalem was content to be oblivious and to be oblivious means to keep our eyes down and not even dream of raising them. To be oblivious means to give in to the darkness of sin and violence and the thick clouds of resignation that tell us that this is just the way things have always been and will always be.
In the Epiphany we are no longer afforded the luxury of remaining oblivious. The light of God has appeared for all nations, for all peoples and for all times! As Christians we must learn the discipline of the magi. We must raise our eyes and look about! We have to learn the faith, the trust and the patience needed to follow the star. We have to be willing to let our faith lead us even when do not fully know where it is going. We have to learn to follow even the smallest stars that point us toward God and his Kingdom. And we have to resist, in every way, the voices of resignation – the thick clouds that can cover the earth and cover our hearts.
As Christians, we celebrate the Epiphany – the light of Christ has dawned for all peoples and nations. As Christians, we must be the Epiphany. Our very lives must reveal the light of Christ in our world. We begin to do this by making the choice to raise our eyes, to look about and to follow the star of God’s Kingdom.