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May 1, 2024

The risen Jesus never tires of offering himself to us over and over, now under one image, now under another. What he wants to be for us is such a mysterious and profound reality that it cannot be reduced to only one image. Last Sunday he presented himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep; today he tells us the parable of the Vine and the Branches. This metaphor invites us to consider the absolute need for the branches to remain attached to the vine, and this verb remain (or abide) recurs no fewer than seven times in the gospel text. Jesus’ message is clear: ‘Whatever you do, make sure you do not detach yourselves from me!’ Life laid down by the Good Shepherd; life infused by the stock into the branches: whatever the image, we should never forget that we do not generate our own life but must receive it from the One who loves us.

As used in the Old Testament, the image of God the vinedresser and Israel as God’s vine evokes a general religious conviction: that Israel is God’s People and that God takes good care of what belongs to him. But there is a great novelty when Jesus uses this image today because it points to the specific intimacy that exists between Jesus and those who deliberately choose to follow him and adhere to him. Much more than the shepherd who stands in the midst of his sheep but is still distinct from them, Jesus is now the stump to which all are bound and out of which all grow: I am the vine, you are the branches. Where does the vine end and where do the branches begin? You really can’t tell because they are, in fact, but one inseparable thing.

These branches bear not their own but his fruit, another key term here that recurs no less than six times. And please note the mutual dependency implied by the image: if it is true that the branches quite depend on the sap transmitted to them by the stock (Without me you can do nothing), it is also true that the stock extends itself into the branches, which it cannot do without for the production of fruit. Yes, the Messiah and his followers belong to each other in an intensely organic and necessary way.

We’ve seen that this gospel makes a great deal of the concept of remaining or abiding, so much so that we can consider this word the heart of its message. Just as vine and branches are mutually dependent, so too the Messiah has invited his disciples to collaborate with him in the Redemption of the world. Incredibly, Jesus does not wish to save the world without our participation in that task. He says: Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit. There is, therefore, a double consensual abiding here, thanks to which divine life circulates and transmits itself; and the fruit of that mutual abiding in love then goes forth out of this relationship into a hungry world.

A little further on, Jesus specifies how this transmission of life is realized: If you abide in me and my words abide in you…, he says. This is the absolute condition: the Lord dwells in us and transmits God’s life to us—and from us to the world—through the indwelling of his words in our heart. But we are not mere passive receivers; we must allow Christ’s words to abide actively, explosively, in us. It is the words of the Master that transmit life. But let’s be realistic: this can happen only to the extent that they abide and take root in the heart of the disciple. Only then can they have their effect. And these are the same words that serve the Father as tools to prune and clean the branches, so that they may bear even more fruit. To allow the Lord to abide in us, to allow him to stand in the midst of our community as the Risen One appearing to the frightened disciples, to allow him to prune us, means letting his words indwell all our feelings, thoughts, words and actions dynamically, and thus inspire, direct and condition us.

At the conclusion of today’s gospel Jesus manifests to us the keenest desire of the Father: By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. The Father is thus glorified by whatever manifests his generative, parental action and care: precisely a vine—the Church, ourselves—that bears fruit. Here Jesus uses a peculiar turn of phrase, for he declares that the Father is glorified not only by our bearing much fruit but also by our becoming his Son’s disciples. What can this mean, since this gospel already begins with the words, Jesus said to his disciples…? Were they not his disciples already, before Jesus’ instruction on the vine? How can he encourage them to become his disciples when they were such already?

As someone has wisely observed, in every other religion the disciple longs to “graduate” and become a master some day; only in Christianity does the disciple long to become, ever more deeply, a truer disciple! Indeed, the greatest fruit of belonging to Jesus is to continue growing as disciples of the Risen One, since growth is the surest sign of the presence of life. We must long to be ever more intimately bound to him, grafted into him, receiving life from him, in a dynamic process that is never completed. Such a proposition requires much patience and effort but also instils boundless hope, joy and gratitude.

This magnificent Parable of the Vine, then, speaks to us of our call to intimacy with the risen Christ. It also speaks to us, more starkly, of our need for a sharp Grace to come and cut off the dead branches in our soul, and prune the fruitful branches. Above all, however, this gospel reveals to us our deepest identity which, at a mundane level, we are constantly in danger of forgetting out of fear and isolation: namely, that we are members of Christ and, in Christ, of one another, and that we derive our common life from this mutual coinherence which the Father has so generously created. This is not a static doctrine to be merely believed but a dynamic sacramental mystery, realized and concretely lived in the one Eucharistic Sacrifice we are now invited to celebrate. 

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