A mother learned that her young son was being shipped out for duty in Iraq, and she became sick with worry. She could not bear the thought that he would be in harm's way on the other side of the world. After many tears and much prayer, she took some consolation in these words from her parish priest: "The Jesus you pray to here is the same Jesus your son will be praying to in Iraq." Those simple words helped her not only to see that her son would be in God's hands, but that even half a world away she would remain connected with him through the mystery of faith and prayer.
At the Last Supper, Jesus also had to face the prospect of leaving his disciples. He wanted them to know that although He would no longer be with them physically, His presence would nonetheless still be very real and active among them. And so Jesus used the image of the vine to describe the ongoing connection He would have with his followers even after His death and resurrection. Just as the branch is vitally connected to the vine, so the believer is vitally connected to Jesus. And just as, apart from the vine, the branch shrivels up and dies, so those who are not connected to Jesus have no life within them.
Although the image of the vineyard was commonly used to describe the people of Israel, Jesus' use of the vine is unique. Whereas the vineyard was used as a symbol of all the people, the vine is used to describe the relationship of the individual believer to Jesus. Each one is connected individually to Him who is the source of all life. Each branch draws its life from Jesus Himself.
The Last Supper is the only place where Jesus uses the image of the vine, but it repeats a theme which echoes throughout the gospel of John -that Jesus "stays" or "remains in" His disciples and they "stay" or "remain in" him. For example, when Jesus asks the first disciples what they want, they do not ask Him, "Where are you going?" but, "Where are you staying." This "remaining" points to the mystery of Jesus' ongoing presence within His disciples. And like all mysteries, it is meant to be pondered rather than explained. It seems the more we talk about it, the further its meaning eludes us. And so the image of the vine gives us an important glimpse into what this staying with and in Jesus means.
When we think of a vine, we typically picture the leafy ivy that takes over the facade of historic buildings or the creeping vines that wrap themselves around fences. However, Jesus no doubt had a grape vine in mind. After all, he was observing the Passover with His disciples, and wine, "the fruit of the vine," played an important role in the celebration. Furthermore, he tells his disciples that they will know that they are connected to him when they bear fruit in abundance. They are not only meant to be in Jesus, but to bear fruit in Him.
Fruit plays an important role in the reproduction of plants. The fruit attracts animals which carry it off, eat it and leave the seed within behind to take root and grow. A vine does not grow fruit for its own use, but to entice others to grab hold of it and carry the seed off with them. Just so, the fruit that believers bear is not meant for themselves but for the nourishment of others that they too may take the seed within - in this case, the Word - and carry it far and wide. That is why Jesus can say that God is glorified in our bearing much fruit. For it is by the fruit that Christians bear through their relationship with Jesus that new believers are grafted to the vine.
And what is the fruit that Christians are meant to produce? Love.
This love is more than sentimental feelings or good intentions. It is, rather, the kind of love that we can only produce when we know Jesus. It is the love that makes one willing to lay down ones life the way Jesus did. It is the love that speaks the truth whether it is welcome or not. It is the love that does not rejoice when branches are trimmed from the vine but that seeks out the lost. There is no other way of producing a love that forgives wrongs than by drawing our life and strength from Jesus Himself.
And so the fact that we each sprout individually from the vine which is Christ does not mean that we are separated from one another. As the mother in the story experienced, Jesus connects us not only to himself but to one another. Together we form the one vine which extends its branches throughout the world and bears fruit in love. The woman who folds her hands to pray in Tennessee draws life from the same source as the man who kneels down in Bangladesh. The teenager who visits the sick in Buenos Aires does so with the same love that moves a rich woman to give her coat to a homeless person in Lisbon. It is the same Jesus who continues to be present and active throughout the world just as He promised His disciples.
At the Eucharist, we gather to witness the transformation of "the fruit of the vine and work of human hands" into the very life blood of Christ. It is the source of our life and its highest expression. We offer with the gifts of bread and wine all that we are and all that we have done. It does not always seem like much. But we offer it precisely so that it can be transformed into something beyond our power to achieve. Pondering the mystery of the life of Jesus within us will make us grow in our longing to be united with Him through this holy communion. And it will strengthen us to bear more abundant fruit for the life of the world.
(image by Marisol Sousa)