Christ is the True Vine, and We Are the Branches

Scriptures & Art: Our life depends on being engrafted into the Mystical Body of Christ.

“Christ the True Vine,” 15th century
“Christ the True Vine,” 15th century (photo: The Temple Gallery/Public Domain)

Last Sunday’s Gospel presented Jesus as “the Good Shepherd.” This Sunday’s Gospel (John 15:1-8) presents Jesus in a more abstract fashion, as “the True Vine.” That concept should not, however, be reduced to the “merely symbolic” or metaphorical. It is real and true, with a rich theological pedigree and significance to consider this week.

“I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5) and the Father is the vinegrower (v. 1). As noted, this is no “merely symbolic” metaphor. It is quite real. Our life depends on being engrafted into the Mystical Body of Christ.

Life, according to Jesus, involves participation. In the same Last Supper Discourse as today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Philip that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10). Not only that but their Spirit — the Spirit of the Father and the Son — proceeds from them as their gift to us and, when that gift is given, “he [will] live in you and will be in you” (v. 17). While the Persons of the Trinity are distinct they are, nevertheless, a communion of persons (communion personarum) bound together in eternal Love. And it is in the image and likeness (Genesis 1:27) of that Triune God that we human beings are made, called also to form a communion personarum. 

When, therefore, God forbids Adam and Eve to sin lest they die, he posits no arbitrary connection between sin and death. Death is not an arbitrary punishment that befalls sinners by God’s whim, as if he could have chosen to “punish” man by, say, having him grow a second head but instead chose to have him die. 

No, death is not a divine caprice. It is the inevitable and ineluctable consequence of breaking one’s relationship with God. The one thing we as persons can have in common with God is love. We are not the source of our own being. We neither created nor sustain ourselves. We can only choose to love or not to love, and if we choose not to love he who is Love (1 John 4:8) and “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), the only alternative is only non-love and non-life (i.e., death). 

When the circuit breaker cuts the lights off from the power plant, they go out — not because the lights are being “punished” but because, without the source of their power, they are not self-sustaining. Human life is not so starkly an “on/off” question, but my preferred image is a rose. A rose is very beautiful on the rosebush. When I cut it and put it in a vase, however, it dies, slowly but inevitably, because it is not connected to the plant that nourishes and sustains it. It doesn’t seem immediate, but it’s there. The edges of the petals begin to curl. The flower starts to shrink. Eventually the petals lose their color and, one by one, fall off. The flower feigns life but it, like us, being incapable of self-sustenance, eventually expresses the death that, being cut off from the source of its life, must inevitably appear.

Man can destroy himself spiritually. But the suicide — physical or spiritual — cannot give himself back life. Only God can put mortal Humpty Dumpty back together again. He does so by engrafting us into Jesus. In Jesus we become God’s adopted children (Ephesians 3:20; 1 John 3:2), sons in the Son. We become God’s adopted children through Baptism, which engrafts us into Jesus Passion in the hope of his Resurrection (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12). By being incorporated into Jesus, God sends us his Holy Spirit (John 14:17) that gives us the power truly to call God “Abba” (Romans 8:15)Our “Father,” the very prayer Jesus taught us and “we dare” to pray.

Our spiritual life, therefore, always depended on being connected to God and, in the spiritual economy in which we live after the Fall, is absolutely dependent on being engrafted into Jesus Christ. That is what today’s Gospel is all about. Jesus is the Vine, the rosebush, the source of Our Life. We are either grafted into him, drawing our life from him, or we merely feign the appearances of life. That engrafting is sacramentally based, founded in Baptism (Romans 6:4), deepened in Confirmation where are “sealed the gift of the Holy Spirit” more fully, and sustained in our “daily bread” (for which we ask “Our Father”) in the Eucharist, without eating which “you have no life in you” (John 6:53). 

This 15th-century icon from Crete embodies this entire theology in artistic form. Jesus is literally represented as the grapevine, the fruitful plant rooted in the soil. The Biblical text shown in Greek directly below him quotes today’s Gospel. Grape leaves and bunches of grapes further identify the Biblical allusion, set on the traditional golden background (indicative of the heavenly). The plant’s tendrils sustain 14 persons: the Blessed Virgin Mary (on Jesus’ right) and St. John the Baptist (on his left), and assorted Apostles and Evangelists. The commentary linked above identifies those on Jesus’ right as (top to bottom): Peter, John, Mark, Andrew, Simon, and Thomas and, on Jesus’s left (top to bottom): Paul, Matthew, Luke, Bartholomew, James and Philip. It claims that the four Evangelists and St. Paul bear Gospel books, while the others hold scrolls. If these identifications are correct (I am unfamiliar with Eastern iconography), the text errs in speaking of the “12” Apostles. Mark, Luke and Paul are not part of that 12, while the second James and Jude (and Judas Iscariot, for obvious reasons) are left out. They could have been easily included and still maintained the symmetry of the icon. Could the intention have been to divide the “branches” into two groups of seven, seven being for the Hebrews a number of perfection? Perhaps, except that eight (perfection plus one) is also a Christian symbol of the fullness of eschatological perfection, e.g., the “eighth day” and so, arguably, could have included our two missing Apostles. (It’s one reason we liturgically have Octaves to the great Solemnities of Christmas and Easter).

The linked commentary also provides other illustrations of Cretan icons that depict the “True Vine” imagery and possible relations, e.g., Jesus’ genealogical “family trees.” The commentary also suggests that the icon discussed above may have originated around the time of the Council of Florence-Ferrara (1438-45), the last ecumenical council seriously to attempt ecumenical reunification between Catholics and Orthodox (and thus stressing the one Vine).

While I cannot say how frequently the “Vine” motif appears in its theological richness in religious art, its richness in theology and the spiritual life is apparent. As St. Paul reminded the “spiritual but not necessarily religious” seekers in the Athenian Areopagus, hedging their bets on an “altar to the unknown God” about which they didn’t want to know anything from St. Paul: “in him we live and move and have our being: (Acts 17:28) who makes us his “offspring” (v. 29). He’s not a passer-by. We must be part of him.