(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 3)
Jesus uses the image of the vine and the branches to describe our relationship with him. The image is rich in meaning. Anyone who has visited a vineyard can readily grasp the richness of this image. If you go as harvest approaches you will see vast lines of carefully tended vines full of grapes. Rows and rows of deep green vines riddled with clusters of fruit ready to be picked.
If you go in the months following harvest you will see large numbers of laborers cutting the vines down to their core. It is pruning time, a necessary step in the cycle of growth. The pruning process allows the vines to mature so to bear a better quality fruit in the following season.
If you go in the winter the vines will have been pruned and the stumps protrude from the earth like gnarly stumps or dead trees. The vines look barren but they are alive. At this time of year the old vines are clearly distinct from the newer ones. Grape vines can live up to 150 years. As they grow the base becomes large and the branches look like those of trees. The younger ones look fragile and delicate.
What we don’t see is the growth below the earth, roots that can get to be as long as 15 feet. These roots hold the plant firmly in the earth from which they draw water and nutrients for the vine.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says to his disciples past and present. The image captures the reality we celebrate, in a special way, during the Easter season. We have become one with Christ through our union with him in baptism.
Looking at the vine in full growth we can distinguish branches from stem but cannot think of them apart. We see it as one unit, one plant. Indeed if the branch is somehow severed from the vine it will wither up and die. The branches going forth from the vine will grow and bear much fruit precisely because they are connected with the vine. It is through the vine that that plant is hydrated and fed. A cut in the connection will damage the flow of nutrients. A break of the connection will lead to death.
The image brings to mind the union we share with Christ Jesus and the life that flows from him to us. The relationship is life giving.
Jesus further says: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” The life that flows from Christ to us is one that in addition to giving us life produces something in us. The relationship is not only sustained through this union but can grow.
Just as the vine grows strong and great over the many years of its life, our relationship with Jesus can grow and develop. One of the amazing things is that in this relationship the fruit that is borne will become a source of nourishment and help for others. When Jesus speaks of this fruit he is speaking of qualities such as compassion, mercy, faithfulness, kindness, hopefulness, charity and love.
Jesus also speaks of the pruning process. He says: “You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.” His word and commands do the pruning. The pruning begins when we hear his word and allow it to penetrate our lives. When we ask him to take away those things that either stunt growth or cause harm we open ourselves to new growth and better quality fruit.
The passage from the First Letter of John that serves as the second reading for today’s Mass includes an exhortation related to this life on the vine. The author says: “Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” Living the life of faith and discipleship includes acting on the word of God, in other words, keeping his commandments. He goes on to write that two have prominence: believing in the name of Jesus Christ the Father’s son and loving one another “just as he commanded us.”
Jesus describes this love in these terms: “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He binds the command of love to his other teachings when he says: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
The first reading for today’s liturgy is from Acts of the Apostles. The passage recalls Barnabas having to explain to the other disciples the transformation that has taken place in Saul also known as Paul. In the life of Paul we see an example of how the life of Christ flows through the vine to the branches; we also see how that important act of pruning took shape and the abundant fruit that was produced by Christ through Paul.
In this account Barnabas merely references that Paul encountered the Risen Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him. The word of the Risen Christ began a transformation in Paul. He would no longer be the persecutor of Christians but one who proclaims Christ. It is obvious from the account that Paul had a clear reputation for persecuting Christians hence the disciples were afraid of him when he and Barnabas first arrive. Yet they were surely amazed when Barnabas tells the story and they witness the preaching of Paul.
The life Christ won for us through his passion, death and resurrection is passed on as Paul is grafted onto the vine. As we continue to follow the Acts of the Apostles we will see that many, many more people will come to share in the life on the vine.
Jesus’ image of the vine and branches is a powerful reminder to us of the love that binds us together with him, and each other. In union with him we have life. In union with him we are nourished for the journey of life. In union with him we bear fruit. And so he exhorts us: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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Thank you, Monsigner, for this explanation.