Christ is the True Vine, His Father is the Vine Grower, and We Are the Branches
The image of the vine and the branches shows us the enormous worth of each human being, and the relation we have to one another.
Recently, in my own reading, I had begun to examine the life and work of Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, a former rector of Mundelein Seminary and a pioneer of the Liturgical Reform in the 1940s and 50s in the United States. Hillenbrand was, by all accounts, a brilliant man but a difficult man. When he was renovating his parish church of the Sacred Heart in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1957 in accord with Pius XII’s encyclical, Mediator Dei, he wrote the architect whom he hired the following terse lines:
“I do not favor any of the conventional symbols that are used in Catholic Churches. If we have to use a symbol anywhere, I should prefer ‘the Vine and the Branches,’ which Christ used as a symbol for the Church, his Mystical Body.”
And this symbol, the vine and the branches, is precisely the symbol that the Lord Jesus offers to us in the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel. In Rome, we are well familiar with the image of the vine and the branches at the Church of San Clemente. It is the image of the Cross of the Lord being the Tree of Life, which spools out into vine and the branches. In the Immaculate Conception Chapel of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where I have the joy to serve as the academic dean, the green of the floor of this chapel that stems out of our sanctuary into the nave is the tree of life, another lived example of the vine and the branches in our midst.
Yes, image of the vine and the branches is an appropriate and powerful image given by Our Lord. What are the implications of Christ being the vine, we the branches, and his Father the vine grower? I would say that they are three and, please note, all three are connected: first, ecclesiological; second, morally; and third and finally, spiritual.
Ecclesiologically, this image of the vine and the branches is essential for us to understand what is perhaps the one of the most biblical and patristic images of the Church, and that is that of the Mystical Body of Christ.
The image of the Mystical Body of Christ from Pius XII in 1943 is not at all in opposition to Paul VI’s People of God in 1964. In fact, these two are absolutely complementary. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI told the seminarians at the Roman Major Seminary in 2010, “The fundamental background for the Parable of the Vine is Baptism: we are implanted in Christ; and the Eucharist: we are one loaf, one body, one blood, one life with Christ.”
When we celebrate the Eucharist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is Christ himself, the true vine, in the Father, who is the true vine grower, and the true water that can only quench us is the Holy Spirit, who gives us the very best gift — the gift of himself in the Eucharist.
In the doctrine of the Mystical Body, morally speaking, as the vine and the branches, we learn two things: first, the enormous individual worth of each human and second, the organic relation we have to each other. When one part of the branch is hurt and dying, all are hurting. And, thus, we have a moral obligation as members of the Mystical Body to care for one another. Never can we think that what we do at the altar does not relate to the work of justice and charity. We are to become him whom we receive if we are to fully grasp the meaning of the sacred mysteries. Fed and led by the Corpus Mysticum, the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist, we must become the Corpus Mysticum, the Body of Christ present in the Church.
Spiritually, being grafted on the vine means two things: first, recognizing the branch’s need to remain connected to the vine, and second, recognizing the branch’s need for constant pruning. Perhaps among the most important theological concepts for us to recognize is the analogia entis, “the analogy of being.” At its essence, it means that as similar as we are to God, the greater still is our dissimilarity. Or, to put it more bluntly: “God is God, we are not, and thank God for that.” If we forget, even for a moment that we need to continue to be connected to the vine and think that we can survive on our own, we are deluding and harming ourselves. The surest way to cut ourselves off from the vine is to persist in sin. This is why there is the consistent need, as painful as it is at times, for the pruning that arrives in our lives through daily conversion.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in that same visit to the Roman Major Seminary in 2010, summarizes well the theology and the spirituality of the vine and the branches. He said:
“Thus this process of purification also has a sacramental background: the sacrament of Penance, of Reconciliation, in which we accept this divine pedagogy which day by day, throughout our life, purifies us and increasingly makes us true members of his Body. In this way we can learn that God responds to our prayers, that he often responds with his goodness also to small prayers, but often too he corrects them, transforms them and guides them so that we may at last and really be branches of his Son, of the true vine, members of his Body.”
Yes, Christ is the true vine, his Father is the true vine grower, and we are the branches. Together, when we become part of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are called to take up his cross and suffer, die, and rise with the True Vine. And, in doing so, we are also to assist our brothers and sisters, the People of God, who make up the Mystical Body, to carry their crosses, ease their sufferings, and to learn to participate in the dying and rising of Christ, the true vine.