The process of growing grapes is very finicky and precise, and, in many ways, it is counterintuitive. Whereas, for just about any cash crop, one needs to find fertile soil, give the plants plentiful water, rotate the crops, and begin each season by planting new seed,by contrast, with grapes, it’s different. The best soil for grapes is gravelly, clay soil with chunks of limestone, not fertile, black loam. With corn or wheat, we need plentiful rain, but too much rain can actually ruin the grapes. And then there is the necessity to prune back the vines just when they are at their peak stage of growth. I have yet to see any of you farmers prune a cornstalk; that would be ridiculous. Finally, the best grapes come not from freshly planted seed, but from root stocks that have been around for dozens, even hundreds of years.
And yet, even though so much of vine growing is counterintuitive, there is a certain logic to it all. The gravelly soil gives a rich mineral taste to the wine. A lack of constant water causes the vines to struggle and grow deep, strong roots. Pruning the vines at the peak of growth causes the plants to put more energy into bearing fruit, rather than producing more fruitless branches. And the use of old root stocks can help the plants resist disease.
It is no accident that our Lord uses this imagery of vine growing in the gospel we hear today. For we, like the vines, need to adopt the logic of the vine grower in order to flourish as disciples of Christ. When we are planted in a spiritually dry, difficult terrain, we are forced to struggle and strive to become disciples. I believe that this is why Texas is an especially suitable culture to be a Catholic. While we live in a place that acknowledges and values worship of God, we also find ourselves in a culture that criticizes authority, criticizes devotion to Mary and the saints, and criticizes so many of our Church’s moral teachings. We are challenged in our workplaces and classrooms by those who appear to know the Bible better than we do. While it may be a hospitable culture for Christianity in general, it is a struggle to be Catholic in particular. But do not let your hearts be troubled! For, just as the grapevines must struggle for nutrients in the rocky soil, so too our struggle to live as authentic Catholic witnesses makes us into strong, tenacious disciples.
Secondly, it is good that we live in a semi-arid climate—that is, spiritually speaking. We must dig deep in order to draw from the well of knowledge and wisdom that has been built up throughout the history of the Catholic Church. If we find ourselves lacking in answers to objections to the Faith, rest assured that someone, in some era, has already encountered this same objection. There is a veritable ocean of wisdom to be tapped into, if we only have the courage and make the time to seek it out. Our philosophical and theological roots go down deep; we need only to graft ourselves onto them.
Thirdly, a disciple of Jesus Christ must be pruned back from time to time. I tend to think of this pruning process with regards to sin and vice. It is somehow strange that Lent occurs during the springtime, when plants are sprouting and flowers begin to bloom. This is the time when we, ourselves are pruned back. We take on spiritual disciplines in order to strengthen our wills, so that we will be stronger in resisting temptation. We give alms and do acts of charity in deed, not merely in word, in order to train ourselves in virtue. We trim back the wild branches of curiosity in order to focus in on what matters the most. And, when we undergo this admittedly painful process of pruning, we end up bearing more fruit in the end.
Finally, our connection to the old root stocks will help us to resist spiritual diseases. When we remain rooted in Christ, we remain connected to the very life-blood of the Church. The Holy Spirit flows thru us like the water and nutrients that flow up from the roots of the grapevine to its branches and leaves. We receive our spiritual nourishment by remaining close to the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, and the ailments of our souls are cured by the Anointing of the Sick. The grace we receive in the sacraments is an inoculation against the wickedness of this world. It is an antidote to post-modernism and nihilism. It causes us to build up rather than to tear down. It gives us freedom to be virtuous instead of enslavement to vice. It gives us objective truth instead of relativism. It gives us hope instead of despair. It gives us communion instead of loneliness. These are the spiritual diseases of our time, and God has provided the cure in Jesus Christ, thru his Church.
As the month of April draws to a close, we are getting closer and closer to final exams, graduations, baseball playoffs, track meets, and one act plays. The season that we call the academic year is coming to an end. With the end of this season comes vacations, trips, and new jobs. And it is so tempting in this period of transition to become disconnected from the source of our spiritual life. It is all too easy to make excuses for failing to keep holy the Sabbath—like staying up too late afterprom, or busying ourselves with community fundraisers. Or to think that if CCD is not in session, then we don’t have to go to Mass. This attitude is from the Father of Lies. Don’t fall for it.
When we fail in our Sunday obligation, there is a way back to communion, and that is thru the Sacrament of Penance. We have the tendency to excuse ourselves also from the confessional, and to attempt to hide our sin by continuing to come up for communion when we are not in a state of grace. “But Father, it’s embarrassing when I don’t come up for communion. I mean, what will everyone else think? What did he/she do? What grave sin will they assume I committed?” And I would say, I hope we do feel a little embarrassed, because that should drive us to confess our sins! We also have the tendency to think that confession is only for Advent and Lent. This is also an error. Confession is available every week, and if I need to, I’ll double or triple the hours I sit in the confessional. Let me be clear—to receive the Eucharist unworthily is far, far worse than to be a little embarrassed for not going to communion. The judgment of Jesus Christ is the one that counts, not the judgment of our neighbors.
To be fruitful disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to stay connected to the true vine. Our spirits cannot survive in this world without nourishment. How many of our friends, relatives, and neighbors are missing from our pews this week? We know who they are. They have disconnected themselves from the true vine. Have we, the witnesses of the Resurrection, reached out to them? Have we made a phone call, made an invitation, made an attempt to heal divisions? Have we said “I’m sorry” when it is our very sins that keep others from coming back to church? Have we made every attempt to remove scandal by having our marriages ratified by the Church? Don’t wait for Father to make that phone call. This is the role of the whole Church, the whole people of God.
Notice that, in the first reading, St. Paul relies on certain individuals to bring him into communion with the Church—that is, with the rest of the Christians. St. Paul had had a personal experience of Jesus Christ on the Road to Damascus, but it took the members of the Body of Christ to bring him into the fold. Ananias, though he was skeptical, brought Paul into his home and helped him regain his health. Barnabas stood up and vouched for Paul when the community was afraid of him.
The lesson is this—none of us is a Christian by ourselves. We are not a series of islands, disconnected from one another. We are all branches of the same vine, Jesus Christ. We must remain connected to him and, thru him, to one another, if he is to remain in us.
Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. And since we are the branches, we must reach out to those who are disconnected from Christ and his Church. Bring them back in, so that they can receive nourishment once again.