I find the theme of connection helpful as I look at our readings today.
Acts of the Apostles: We have the great apostle Paul, as Saul, treated with suspicion because of his reputation of persecuting the Church. It is Barnabas (Son of Encouragement) who builds the bridge between Saul and the Apostles and other believers in Jerusalem. Barnabas vouches for Saul and allows him to get a hearing. Saul is authentic because he has been given the Holy Spirit Who connects him to Jesus and the mission of preaching the Good News. He is preaching and teaching to reach out and invite his hearers to faith in Jesus. Saul wants as many as possible to be connected to Jesus in faith and to be beneficiaries of the blessings of the Risen Lord.
First Letter of St. John: John explains that it is only if we remain connected to/faithful to Christ, putting all our faith in Him and drawing our spiritual strength from Him can we have the means to live the Christian life and our personal mission of love.
The Gospel of St. John: We have the beautiful allegory of the Lord as the Vine, His Father the vinedresser and we, the followers of Jesus are the branches which must bear fruit. It forms part of the Lord’s Farewell Discourse when He is preparing His disciples for the trauma of His passion and death. This will terrify them and they will feel a devastating sense of separation from the Lord. They will feel disconnected and will be in a room with locked doors filled with fear, confusion, disappointment and inactivity. In speaking of being the Vine, Jesus stresses the connection of the disciples to Him. He is their source of life and the events of His Passion and death cannot break the bond of love He has for them.
In speaking of Himself as the Vine, Jesus stresses the closeness of His relationship with His followers who accept Him. Also, He stresses that this bond needs to be maintained. They are not simply rabbi and disciples. Such disciples become independent of their master in due course. The Lord’s disciples are totally dependent on the Lord’s grace and love given in the Holy Spirit Who sustains the believer; just as a vine nourishes its branches. It is vital we remain together.
This resonates with us. We, like the disciples, fear disconnection. The devil loves to put wedges between us. He wants us to break our vows and promises. He wants us to breakaway and go it alone, just as he tried to do with Jesus in the wilderness. We know instinctively how harmful this can be. Connection is beneficial, disconnection is destructive. Loss of a loved one hurts and often endures and is not always healed by time. Broken relationships wound deeply. Orphans long for a family to accept them. Refugees long to be taken in and made welcome. The sick feel disconnected from how well they used to be. The list goes on.
Jesus came that we might be one with Him as He is One with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Lord wants us to feel so in communion and connection with Him that whatever separations and difficulties we experience, we have His love pouring into us and we can keep going in hope. The Vine has many teachings in it to help us to be in unity with the Lord and to bear fruit:
Jesus is the Vine and we are the branches. Cut off from Him, we can do nothing. It helps to be well connected at times. Such people get things done, feel very secure and can appeal to another when in need. How much more so is this when we come to our communion of life with Jesus. In baptism we become the Body of Christ, the Church. We are taken into the Divine Life of the Trinity and become Temples of the Holy Spirit. In the Sacrament of Confirmation, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit give us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In the gift of the Holy Eucharist, we are given Holy Communion: the Lord: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Jesus feeds Himself to us so that we become the love and life we receive. We clearly see how God nourishes us so that we can use the gifts given and graces bestowed to love others as we serve in the Kingdom of God. In order for us to stay fruitful and faithful we, like the vine, need care and attention.
The Father is the Vinedresser: the vinedresser was very hardworking. The dresser prepared the soil, nourished it, removed hard stones, removed weeds and extraneous plants, indeed anything that might inhibit the vine becoming established and ultimately thrive. We see how much God does for us for us to thrive in His grace and blessings. He is always watching over us, pouring lavish concern upon each and every one of us so that we can be deeply rooted in His love and life.
An essential intention of the vinedresser was to keep the vine healthy and productive. Vines, left to themselves, grow along the ground and the fruit gets dirty, contaminated and often wasted. The dresser trains/directs the vine, lifting it out of the dirt placing it in a clean environment and growing in an ordered and effective way in the sunlight. We see how God’s Mercy lifts us up out of the mire of our poor choices and sin so that we can thrive in the environment of love, light and nurture. We also accept the need for training, for guidance and correction so that we can make the best use of the graces given to us.
Vines have two types of branches: one grows fruit, the other is always barren. The barren one continues to use the vine’s resources but give no return. Worse, it draws nourishment away from the branch that is bearing fruit. It is this redundant branch that the dresser cut’s way and since the wood is too soft to be used, it is burnt. There is of course dead wood that needs to be removed. Further, even the fertile branches have their issues. These can have dead sections that would be better removed. Dead wood harbours insects and disease which could cause concern for the whole vine, even rot and death to say nothing of impeding productivity and fruitfulness. The dresser would scrupulously examine the vine to identify concerns and act decisively to protect the plant. Jesus tells us we are pruned by the Word of God. It is in the Word that we find guidance, correction, wisdom, encouragement and assistance. The Word prunes and our growth is sustained.
Why cut back the good branches? Vinedressers, like good gardeners, know their business. What seems extreme to us is necessary for the good of the plant. Cutting back makes room for new growth. It allows the branch to consolidate and renew; avoiding it turning into thick wood instead of fruitful shoots. We know it hurts when God’s Mercy is applied to our lives, but we also know it is necessary for spiritual growth. Divine Mercy seeks out what is dead and unproductive and removes it. It finds what is sinful and Kingdom incompatible in us and absolves all.
All this said, I remember my gardener’s patience with me when he started pruning in the early days of my tenure. I often hovered over him offering the odd, superfluous misinformed snippet of advice. He was very patient with me as I winced when I thought he had gone too far and cut too much off. Watching the beneficial effect of radical/appropriate pruning over the years has convinced me of its worth. What I thought was killing was actually curing, improving not inhibiting. Are you like me? A little reticent to go to Confession? Prone to minimise the issues, defer to another time and leave the pruning a little longer? And yet, when I have been to God’s Mercy, I feel so much better. I feel relieved and a little more hopeful as to my effectiveness as a Christian. Stuff that needed to go has gone and hopefully something better will grow in its place.
In a parable Jesus told about a fruitless fig growing in a vineyard, the vinedresser pleaded with the owner to give the fig another chance. This is my reason for hope for all of us. Whatever mess we make of being fruitful, God will always give us another opportunity to get it right. A clean sheet of paper to start again. Mercy fixes everything, all we need do is accept it’s need and ask. The devil hates this truth. He can throw everything at us to drive us apart but knows nothing is definitive in the face of the liberation of God’s forgiveness. They say: “Tell the truth and shame the devil”. Today we say: “Bear the fruit and please your God”.
Fr. Gerard. x