The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Homily: 5th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 9:26-31; Ps 22; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8

About 35 years ago Diane and I bought a house in the country outside San Diego. It was really a neat place and even had a small horse corral. Now I suppose a corral is a wonderful thing for those who like horses, but for a city boy like me, well, it was completely useless.

Anyway, on the first day in our new house, I noticed a grape vine in the back yard. It hadn’t been very well cared for and its few grapes looked pretty pathetic. At first I intended simply to remove it, dig it out and replace it with something else, but something stopped me.

For me there’s always been something very spiritual about grapevines. And I couldn’t help but recall the words of today’s Gospel passage from John: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower…I am the vine and you are the branches” [Jn 15:1,5]. Now, I’d never owned a grapevine before, but in some strange way, having this vine in my backyard seemed like a direct connection to the Gospel. Digging out that vine would be a little like removing Jesus from my life.

Of course, I knew nothing about grapevines, and I still don’t. Oh, I enjoy the finished product, the occasional glass of good wine, but that’s about it. And because I didn’t know how to care for it, that backyard vine of mine never really flourished.

In Jesus’ time grapevines were likely plentiful, and there were probably a lot of backyard vineyards, all no doubt tended far more carefully than mine. But vineyards weren’t just common; there was also something transcendent about them

This metaphor of vineyard, and vine, and branches was something the apostles had all heard before. And as Jesus spoke to them, I’m pretty sure those twelve men realized that in these mysterious words He was saying something truly important.

Isaiah, in his hymn of the vineyard, revealed God’s plan for Israel. He “planted the choicest vines” [Is 5:2] but those vines, God’s chosen people, were not fruitful. The prophet Jeremiah repeats the claim: “I planted you, a choice vine…”, but they became a spurious vine [Jer 2:21]. Again, Psalm 80 sings of Israel as a vine: “You brought a vine out of Egypt…It took root and filled the land” [Ps 80:9-10]. But those same words are also prophetic, and foreshadow the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ, brought out of Egypt by Mary and Joseph [Mt 2:21].

And now these words were being fulfilled in the Apostles’ hearing. Can you imagine what thoughts filled their minds? I know when I hear those words – “I am the vine, you are the branches.” – I am flooded with all sorts of images. I see more than my pathetic San Diego vine. When I hear those words, I’m awed by all of God’s creation, the spectacular wonder of it all, from the microscopic complexity of the living cell to the vast enormity of the universe.

These words, you see, were spoken by the Creative Word of God Himself, and He uses this little piece of His creation – a grapevine – to remind us of just Who our Savior really is. It’s as if He created the vine just for this purpose. These words teach us and touch us in the most profound way and with the most profound truths.

We are called out of ourselves, out of our individual lives of petty worries and little joys and big concerns and heartfelt sorrows – we’re called out of this into God’s life. He wants us to be a real part of that life, of the divine life.

He is the vine; we are the branches. Can you separate the vine from the branches? No, they’re all of one piece. Unless, of course, a branch is cut off completely. This more than intimate connection offers us a glimpse of the relationship the Father desires with us.

But as branches on the same vine, we are also in relationship with each other. As Christians we don’t live our lives in isolation. No, we’re called to live in loving relationship with each other and with Jesus Christ. And any relationship, if it is to develop, must be continually cultivated. That vine and its branches must be cared for. If, like my backyard vine, it’s neglected – if its branches are never pruned, if it’s never watered, it will either become overgrown and fruitless, or it will wither away.

I suppose the question for each of us is apparent: What kind of branch am I?

If our lives are not fruitful we run the risk of being cut off from the vine, of being eternally separated from the divine life God wants for us. For any branch that is cut off soon withers and dies.

But we all need some pruning, brothers and sisters. What needs to be pruned from my life, from your life? What sinfulness separates you and me from the divine life God wants for us? What selfishness separates us from the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Have our lives become little more than a search for material happiness, the happiness that never lasts? Only by pruning these things from our lives will we experience the true joy that God alone offers.

Do I need to be watered with God’s Word? How did St. Jerome put it? “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Jesus Christ.” But knowledge means little if we don’t live in a relationship with Jesus.

Do I need to be fed with His Body and Blood, with the miracle of the Eucharist – the very source and summit of our lives as Christians?

We must tend the vines, friends, and grow in our relationship with the Trinity and with each other. Look at the true vine. See how its branches intertwine, how they wrap around each other, disguising the difference between vine and branches. This is a glimpse of the divine life each one of us was created to share, life with the Trinity itself.

The Father desired each of us to exist. You and I are unique creations, brought into being out of love.

The Son gave His life, suffered and died, for each one of us, and through His Resurrection gave us the hope of eternal life.

And the Spirit, the Spirit does God’s work in the world. He plants the vine; He waters it with God’s Word; He feeds it with God’s grace; and He prunes it lovingly so it will bear perfect fruit.

And so, the vine and the branches are quite simply the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Praised be Jesus Christ…now and forever.

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