COMMUNION WITH CHRIST: Recollection Material for April 2019 (Jn. 15:1-8)
Communion within the community can be solidly built up only in Christ and by Christ. We are members of his body, and to live the communion is nothing else than to fully express that we live by his grace, and this grace, like a spiritual sap, unites all of us members of Christ’s Body in a special way to our brothers in the community. Christ is the Vine, we are the branches. Whoever separates himself from this pristine and essential communion ends up in failure and sterility. Without Christ there is no fruit.
I prepare my heart
God is abundance and generosity. He has gifted me with intelligence to understand, with a heart to love, freedom to responsibly choose, and create beauty in this world. Thankful to God for these great gifts, I present myself in his presence to live out a day of encounter with him. I thank the Lord for the gift of this day of recollection. I dispose my intelligence to be conscious of the Words that God speaks to me. I dispose my heart to profit from the dialogue and to allow his Word to remove my inordinate desires. I dispose my will to bravely respond to God and to the motions that he puts in my interior self. Finally, I beg the Holy Spirit for his presence, his help, his strength, his light… his graces so that my day of recollection may effectively be a happy and docile encounter with the Triune God.
Come, Holy Spirit, by whom every devout soul who believes in Christ is sanctified to become a citizen of the City of God! (en. Ps. 45:8) Come, Holy Spirit, grant that we receive the motions of God, put in us your flame, enlighten us and raise us up to God (s. 128, 4).
I open my heart
With heart well disposed and with serenity, I read slowly the following words, savoring them and allowing myself to be touched by them:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
I return to my heart
The image of the vine is so common in the agricultural world of Israel that it becomes a religious symbol. The frontispiece of the temple in Jerusalem had a beautiful and verdant vine as a symbol of the whole people.
“I am (ego eimi) the true vine” (v.1a). In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the metaphor of “I am” (Gk: ego eimi) in various occasions: “I am the bread of life” (6:35); “I am the living bread who has descended from heaven” (6:51); “I am the light of the world” (8:12); “I am the gate of the sheepfold” (10:7); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).
This language of “I am” reminds us of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, when God made himself known to Moses as “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). It means that “I am” is God and these images of “I am” identify Jesus as God. This is the last of the metaphors of “I am” in this gospel. Like the other images of “I am” (bread, light, gate, shepherd, etc.), the metaphor of the vine assures and comforts us, because for a nomadic people the vineyard is a symbol of settlement, of calling a place one’s home, that is, finding in God and in Christ a place to remain and bear fruit.
The first part of this text (vv. 1-4) presents the Father as the vine grower and the Son as the vine. The Father prunes those branches that do not bear fruit. To bear fruit it is necessary to be clean and remain in the vine to receive the sap as nourishment.
There is a play of words in the verses 2-3 in the Greek text. The Father, who is the farmer, “Cuts off (airei) every branch that bears no fruit, and all those that bear fruit he cuts off/ he cleans (kathairei), that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean (katharoi) because of the word that I have spoken to you.” It seems that the author has chosen these words conscious of their literary and spiritual value, because the verb kathairei implicitly contains the value of to prune and to purify. The Father’s action towards the believers, represented by the branches, is this: to purify them of all impediments so that they can bear more fruits, as effectively happens with the vine.
“Remain (meinate, vb. meno) in me, and I in you” (v.4a). This verb, meno, in its various forms (including the equivalent substantive) appears in various passages of this Gospel. In majority of the cases, it describes an important relationship, paradoxically it signifies an active permanence, activated by the power of love that should bring the believer to bear fruit. It is all put in contrast to a passive and unfruitful permanence whose consequence is being cut off and separated from the vine, who is Christ, i.e., the life.
In this image, Jesus presents to us the fulfillment of the new authentic Israel; by extension, of a new community that allows itself to be pruned and cleansed by the Father to bear fruit. This purifying power is fulfilled by the power of the Word (Jn 17:17).
The second part (vv. 5-8) specifies how Jesus is the vine and the disciples are the branches who must remain united to the vine to produce good fruits. The disciples separated from Jesus are like the branches separated from the vine that wither and deserve only to be thrown into the fire. It is an absolute affirmation to indicate the imperious necessity that a disciple be united with Christ. This union describes the communion of the believer with Christ. Communion with Christ is fulfilled in the acceptance and the living out of the Word. In other words, the bond with Christ consists in remaining in his Word thus creating a mutual communion between the branches and the vine. The branch separated from the vine withers and dies.
We must remain united to the vine, nourishing ourselves from the sap that is the Word itself, and that Word is Jesus himself.
The communion, like the Cross, has two senses. One is vertical directed towards Christ, and the other horizontal towards the brothers. These are two inseparable dimensions of the communion. If one of the two is lacking, there is no true communion. Communion with Christ separated from communion with the Body of Christ, who are my brothers, is a spiritual chimera. The communion with the brothers, prescinding from Christ, is a mere social utopia.
United with the whole Christ, Head and Body
In the Augustinian ecclesiological reflection, the Pauline image of the Body of Christ occupies a fundamental place (1 Cor. 12:12-27). For this reason, St. Augustine on speaking about communion always points towards both directions, because communion implies essential and basic communion with Christ the head, but also a communion with those who are members of this Body of Christ who are the brothers. It is not coherent to say that one lives in communion with Christ the head, by prayer, by spiritual life and the pious practice of the sacraments, if one does not live in full communion with the brothers. St. Augustine, as an example of this reality, reminds us that the best proof of love of God is the love of the brothers. Whoever lives in communion with Christ must love and live in communion with his brothers:
But where must we exercise our charity? In the love of the brother. You can tell me “I have not seen God”; but can you perhaps tell me: I have not seen man”? Love the brother. Because if you love the brother whom you see, you will also see God, because you will see charity itself, within which God dwells (ep. Io. tr. 5, 7).
In the communion of the Body of Christ, it is fundamental to bear fruit, allow the renewing sap of God’s grace to produce fruit in every branch. Nevertheless, communion also implies moments of pruning and purification. The communion in our communities must live moments of purification and pruning. These are moments of apparent defeat and death, but with the purpose of giving more fruit. Christ was the first bunch that was pressed on the Cross and from him came out the wine of salvation.
The first bunch crushed in the winepress is Christ. That bunch, on being crushed during the passion, from it flowed out the juice, of which it was said: “What an excellent inebriating chalice!” (en. Ps. 55:4)
The pruning and the purification
Face to face with the triumphalist vision of the contemporaneous world, where the Cross is not only forgotten, but rather held in great fear, the Paschal Mystery of Christ, dead and risen, invites us to reflect on our own spiritual process. In it we must recognize that we are constructing a communion through our own purification, allowing the Divine Farmer to prune and purify our being, interior and exterior, with the challenge of bearing more fruit, allow him to purify the clean ones, as St. Augustine indicates, that they may bear more fruit:
In effect, who is so clean that he has no further need to be cleaned more and more in this life, where, if we were to say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not is us; if, on the other hand, we had confessed our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all iniquity? Evidently, let him cleanse the clean ones, i.e., the fruitful ones, so that they may be more fruitful the cleaner they are (Io. eu. tr. 80, 2).
Life in community is not easy and in many occasions demands that the religious learn to die unto himself, that he lose what he believed he possessed (health, well-being, comfort) to bear more fruit for God. Whoever builds communion in the community should interpret these losses or cleansing as occasions of growth, not as simple human elements that have a very limited interpretation. Whoever follows Christ will suffer persecution inside and outside the community. What matters is to love and bear fruit. And this fruit must be a fruit tasty and pleasing to God:
Therefore, if you suffer no persecution for Christ, watch out, you may not have started to live devoutly in Christ. Because when you begin to live devoutly in Christ you have entered into the winepress; be prepared to be crushed, but be not arid, do not be without giving out some juice (en. Ps. 55:4).
Above all, the grace
The allegory of the vine and the branches will serve St. Augustine particularly in his polemics with the Pelagians, to underline the poverty of the human being and his absolute necessity for God. For this, he invites us to consider that the building up of communion in the community is a gift of God. We do not deal only nor principally with human effort, but that it is a gift of God. The human instruments can orient and help us, but not like infallible panaceas. If God does not give his grace, we can do nothing.
So that no one may suppose that by itself the branch can bear fruit, at least a little, after having said: “This gives much fruit,” he does not assert: “Because without me you can do little,” but: “You can do nothing.” Without that, therefore, without him you can do nothing, you can do neither little nor much (Io. eu. tr. 81, 3).
Because of this, facing the great problems that confront the communion in the present, we must act, but above all we must pray that our faith may not waver at the moment of the pruning and the cleansing, and so that we can bear much fruit.
St. Augustine, in his letters, recommends himself to the prayers of the addressees of his letters. We also pray for the brothers of the community, for the whole Order, so that God may grant us the gift of unity, of peace and communion:
Pray, my son, pray. I know what I say, I know what I ask for. Let it not seem unworthy and above your merits; … Not only you, but all those who by your words may love me, pray for me. Indicate to them that I asked for it … Consider that I have commanded what I ask; give to the petitioner, obey him who commands. Pray for me (ep. 231, 6).
Questions for community dialogue
- To live united to the vine who is Christ is to live in full communion with Christ the head and with Christ the Body. How do you manifest in your day to day life the full communion with the brothers?
- The Father, who is the Farmer, prunes the branches that they may bear more fruit. How do you face the pruning by God? What was the latest pruning you have experienced and how did you take it?
- Without Christ we can do nothing. What gifts of grace do you experience in your community?
- Prayer helps us to build communion in the community. What importance do you give to the prayer of the brothers and of the Church?
I lift up my heart
Let us give thanks to God for the gifts, the strength and the enlightenment he has granted us on this day of recollection. For this, the following words of St. Augustine can serve us:
We ask and implore you in the Lord, that on the one hand, you retain in memory what you have heard, … But open your heart to the good seeds; pull out the brambles, that they may not choke what was sown in you, but that the harvest may increase, the farmer be full of joy and prepare for you a granary as for wheat, not the fire as for chaff (ep. Io. tr. 5, 13).
“In effect, whoever thinks that he can bear fruit by himself, is not in the vine; whoever is not in the vine, is not in Christ; whoever is not in Christ is not Christian. This is the deepest of your shipwreck” (Io. eu. tr. 81, 2). +