In the Gospel reading today, Jesus describes himself as the true vine for his disciples. The one tending the vine is the Father. The plant is not decorative: its purpose is to produce fruit and for this to happen a certain amount of pruning has to take place.
The instrument for this task is the word which the disciples whom Jesus is addressing have accepted and are therefore already cleansed or pruned and in a fit condition to be productive. But, as with any growing plant, care has to be taken that this healthy state is maintained, so “remaining” (or “abiding”) in Jesus is vital. The image of the vine is especially appropriate, as it suggests the intimate flow of life from the trunk into the branches: if this communication is interrupted or impeded, the branch will wither and lose its reason for being part of the plant. If the disciples remain in Jesus and his words remain in them, then the positive result is that whatever they ask, the Father will grant.
This passage warns against any sense of complacency: the image of the living vine suggests more than a passive attitude towards Jesus, that being his disciple is proved by bearing much fruit, which will redound to the glory of the Father, another strong theme in the Fourth Gospel. It is the word of Jesus which gives life to the disciple, and it is the mutual love of the disciples which will reveal them as disciples of Jesus, to the glory of the Father.
There is no scene in John’s Gospel of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The Eucharistic text is usually identified as the feeding of the crowd of five thousand, which only concerns the bread. Some scholars suggest that the passage on Jesus as the true vine provides the teaching on the Eucharistic wine. Whatever the merits of such arguments, there is an interesting lesson in the idea of communicating life.
The importance of the branch being properly joined to the trunk is unquestionable: the stem is the source of the branch’s life. In the New Testament tradition of the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus speaks about “the cup of my blood”. In biblical thought, the blood is where the life principle of a person or animal is to be found. When we speak of Jesus “shedding his blood” on the cross, we really mean that Jesus “gave his life”: the sacramentally consecrated wine is a very powerful way in which the risen Jesus communicates his life to his disciples and makes sense, if we think about it in the context of the vine providing life-giving nourishment to the branches: this enables them to bear the grapes, which then produce wine.
One of the most important reforms of the Second Vatican Council was the restoring of the chalice to the laity: as Jesus commanded, “drink of it, all of you”. Perhaps we might reflect that it is one way in which the Lord communicates his life to us
- The image of the vine or vineyard is used in the Hebrew scriptures as a symbol for the people of Israel.
- The life principle of the creature is in the blood (Leviticus 17:14).
Jesus “shedding his blood” really means that Jesus “gave his life” for us.
Buy a bunch of grapes. Take some time at home to contemplate them in the context of Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches. Then enjoy them!