By Father Dominic Ryan, O.P.
We Christians like to use images to better understand the relationship Christ has with us. Sometimes, for example, we speak of Christ as the head of the body which is the Church and ourselves as members of that body. Other times we describe ourselves as people who have heard the word of God. In today’s gospel we come across another of them: the vine, its branches, and the vinedresser. Of course, no image perfectly captures the relationship between Christ and ourselves or between Christ and the Father, for that matter. But given the kind of creatures God has made us to be, it’s worth reflecting on what the vine/branch image might mean.
Its force comes from what branches need to achieve their end. That end is bearing fruit and to achieve it branches depend upon vines and vinedressers. Each of these – the vines and the vinedressers – contribute to the production of fruit in different ways. The vine makes the branches live, the vinedresser’s pruning encourages their growth and each part of the image points to some key truth about God or ourselves. Consequently, Christ is the vine, the branches represent Christ’s disciples, God the Father is the vinedresser; the one who looks after the vine, and the fruit the branches bear are the good works that Christians do. And essentially what the image is telling us is that if Christ’s disciples are to bear any fruit they need to be dependent on Christ and to be pruned by the Father.
The first of these is surely welcomed. Most of us will readily accept that without Christ’s help we aren’t going to bear any fruit, at least not habitually and certainly not meritoriously. After all, left to our own devices we tend to be weak and sinful and therefore in need of Christ’s grace to overcome these tendencies and act meritoriously. But this talk of pruning by the Father is a little more alarming and perhaps less clear. I think it’s best to understand it as the Father’s sending of the Holy Spirit and the effect it has on us. Moreover, given that in Christ’s time vines in Israel were pruned on two occasions – first, in March, when dead wood was cut away, and second, in August, when shoots that were too small to bear fruit were removed – we can stretch the image further and identify two moments of our own pruning; first, every time we turn away from sin and turn towards God, and then second under Christ’s influence we act meritoriously and bear much fruit.
Now when this happens it can bring about dramatic changes in us and it can have significant effects on other people. A good example of this is Saint Paul who was mentioned in the first reading. We all know his story. Originally, he had been a persecutor of Christians. He’d held the coats of those who stoned Stephen the first martyr and was even going to persecute more Christians in Damascus when he had his conversion experience. Indeed, so fearsome was Paul’s reputation that when he came to Jerusalem the disciples were afraid to meet him. And yet despite all this we know how Paul went on to do mighty deeds for God and his Church. He truly bore much fruit and he could do so because he was willing to turn away from sin and be grafted onto Jesus and to remain so even in very difficult times. He was also open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit sent by the Father whereby he acted meritoriously in all sorts of circumstances.
Now it’s unlikely that any of us will have as big a role in spreading the gospel as Saint Paul did. Nevertheless, we’re still called to bear fruit and use the same gifts of the Holy Spirit, which had such a profound effect on Paul. So let’s pray for the grace to remain always united to Christ, and to be pruned by the Father, so that through us the Holy Spirit can bear much fruit.