5th Sunday of Easter
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing. Jn. 15:5
In the second half of the 19th Century, European grape vines were struck by a blight that eventually was discovered to be caused by an insect that destroyed the rootstocks of their vines; French Vineyards especially suffered from this blight which threatened to destroy their wine industry. Chemicals and pesticides proved to be next to useless in stemming the blight, but then they found an interesting solution in America where the vine roots had developed immunity to that insect. And so they just imported American roots and then grafted French vines on to these roots and saved the vineyards, which bring us to today’s Gospel in a rather interesting way.
How truly rich in meaning is this image chosen by Jesus to help us understand who he is and how we are totally dependent upon Him for life eternal and fruitfulness of that life. We have heard this Gospel many times, and we are again and again taught its central truth, that life comes to us only through Christ who is the vine and that we have been grafted on to Him by the instrumentality of Baptism. He is the vine and we are his branches. How marvelous all this is we only gradually come to appreciate by much reflection and prayer.
For weeks now we have been rejoicing in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, first of all, the truth that He has risen from the dead and is now alive in the fullest sense possible, alive in body and soul with the life that is eternal, because it is God’s life.
Secondly, we have also been meditating, hopefully, on what all this means for us and for the whole world, which in a real sense is the ultimate beneficiary of his death and resurrection. He has died and risen for us. He has died so that our sins can be forgiven and we can be justified and truly transformed. He has risen from the grave with an utterly new life in order to give each of his justified brothers and sisters a share in His eternal life, and He gives us this new life here and now in spite of our very human imperfection. Finally, we rejoice in our faith that one day we will receive from Him the fullness of that life when he raises us from the dead and seats us with Himself and the whole Church in the glory of His Kingdom.
But we must ask how does he do all this for us, already here in this world? The parable of the vine and the branches can teach us the basic truths about how this all takes place in us, and so we should meditate on this parable often. There are so many facets to this parable that enlighten our minds and fill our hearts with joy when it is properly appreciated. He, the great Teacher, knew this would delight His faithful.
First of all, it is clear to faith that Jesus is the supernaturally fertile vine planted by the Father in this world. Next, faith teaches us that we are the recreated branches who have been grafted onto Him by workers in the vineyard of the Father, the Apostles of Jesus and their successors. In the great vineyards of this world, the skilled vine tenders are often descendents of generations of skilled workers, and this pattern holds true in the Father’s vineyard as well. Skills and tools (the sacraments) are handed down. Our vinedressers too graft branches onto the one great vine who is Christ, the source of their life, and these workers assure that it gets the care that helps these new branches to take root in the vine and grow and flourish.
Moreover, Jesus himself was, in a sense, grafted onto the root stock of Israel, and he became the new vine that produced life and fruit as never before. Even more interesting, we know from Science today that when a vine is grafted on to a root stock, it is the genetic richness of the vine, called the scion, not the root stock itself that produces the rich wine in the future production. I am sure this biological discovery must have pleased the French who were not particularly happy that their great wine supposedly depended upon American roots! You know the French.
What that modern genetic discovery confirms in terms of the parable is that the great fruit produced from the grafting of Jesus onto the root of Israel is from the vine which is Jesus Himself. He is the great vine that has been introduced by the Father into His vineyard of humanity; He is the true source of a wine that Israel could never produce, the richest of wines because it brings eternal life and joy to the heart of men.
But the next grafting s what involves us, the branch that is grafted on to the vine of Jesus who was planted in the root of Israel. The Father, indeed the Trinity, produced the first grafting, while the Apostles are privileged to graft us onto Christ. But we ourselves do not produce the genetic richness of the vine as the vine did to the root plant. All the richness of life and fruitfulness comes to us through the vine. And yet, and this is extremely important, we actually do produce the fruit, but a fruit whose richness is ultimately produced from the vine and its life flowing through us. Jesus could have said I am the vine and you are the fruit, and that is of course perfectly true, we are the first fruits. But he did not say that we are the fruit, which in one sense is true, but that we are the branches who produce the fruit.
This truth is important for at least two reasons. First, it make it clear that while Jesus, in us, is the source of all fruitfulness – “without me you can do nothing” – nonetheless, the fruit is also the produce of the branches; it is our fruit as well as His; his firstly, but ours secondly. We are also responsible for producing the fruit.
And the second important aspect of this truth is that not all branches produce the same quantity or quality of fruit. That’s true in the natural vineyards as well. But here again the abundance really depends not on ourselves alone, but on the Father, the Master vine grower Himself who knows just what each branch needs to flourish. Jesus tells us this at the beginning of this Gospel passage: my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. God actually “prunes” us, and this pruning is inevitably painful for the branch.
And here again the modern science of winemaking (enology) is enlightening. For modern enology teaches us that just the proper degree of “stress” has to be produced in the vines and branches to bring out the best wine and greatest abundance. Too much stress, and the branch withers; just enough stress tolerated, and the branch explodes in fruitfulness. This too confirms a spiritual truth; that nothing truly spiritually great is ever produced in this fallen world without passing the stress test of the Cross.
How loving then is the true vine Master toward His vine and His (Christ’s) branches; and how richly this divine parable can enlighten us regarding both the true source of eternal life and the role of the Cross in enriching our lives. The next time you are suffering anything, meditate on this rich parable and trust that great stress, when transformed by God, can be a source of a richer life and richer fruit. If we just allow the Vine Master to do his work, this stress will pass and will produce much fruit for us and for the world around us. He knows what we are made of, each of us individually. He knows and He cares and He will never allows any of us to be stressed beyond the power of his grace to heal us and he will help us to produce an abundant fruit, thirty, sixty and a hundred fold. Jesus promised this, and His promises never fail.