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The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 2, 2021

Watch this homily! (Begins at 38:15)

     There is great comfort in Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches. Great comfort, but also great challenge. The comfort comes from knowing how very close we are to Jesus and he to us. And “close” really doesn’t quite say it. Jesus tells us that we are as much a part of him as the branches on a vine. We live because of him. St. Paul was in not exaggerating when he wrote to the Galatians, “I live, now not I, but Christ lives within me." There is great mystery here – enough for a whole lifetime - and great comfort.

     The 16th century Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, knew this comfort intimately in the profound union with God that she experienced in prayer. “In order to see Christ and to take delight in Him,” she once wrote, “we have no need to go to heaven.  We need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him dwelling within us.”  St. Teresa knew with mystical certitude the meaning of “I am the vine, you are the branches. Remain in me as I remain in you.” There was great comfort in that for her, as there should be for us. And great challenge.

     The challenge comes when we reflect on the way a vine grows. A vine grows only with cultivation and it grows only with pruning. And pruning is painful. St. Teresa discovered that in the long, agonizing loneliness of her dark night of the soul when God seemed infinitely distant from her, way beyond her reach.

     Pruning as a prerequisite for growth is a theme that runs all through the story of God’s dealings with the human family. Think of Adam and Eve leaving paradise, of Abraham leaving his homeland and later, letting go of the son God had promised him; think of the chosen people leaving behind their secure, if subhuman, situation in Egypt and, of course, think of the Divine Word letting go equality with God in order to become one of us.

     And when he did come among us, Jesus preached a gospel that was good news, but it was also a gospel of painful pruning: the gospel of the seed that must be planted in the ground and die before anything can grow, the gospel of leaving all behind and following, the gospel of “not my will but yours be done.”

     We know all this, my friends, but we resist it. I know I do. I am reminded of what a friend and spiritual mentor of Thomas Merton, the great 20th century Trappist monk and spiritual writer, told him during a time of particularly difficult struggle: “Nothing is too hard if it brings you to God,” the friend told him. Merton remembered these words all his life long, but how he had to fight to believe them! And so must we – especially in moments of disillusionment and doubt when hope is hard to hold onto and darkness eclipses light. And sometimes all Jesus says to us is, “I am the vine, you are the branches…every branch that bears fruit my Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.” 

     “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Remain in me as I remain in you.” I don’t know if you noticed, but that word “remain” appeared again and again in today’s gospel passage – fully eight times, to be exact. It also appeared two times in the reading from the Letter of John. It is the key to everything. Our remaining in him and his remaining in us is our comfort and our strength as we meet whatever challenges life brings. No wonder Jesus says to us, “apart from me you can do nothing.” And that means, of course, that with him there is no limit to what we can do.
 
     I conclude with some words of Saint John Henry Newman, the brilliant 19th century theologian, literary giant, preacher, and convert to Catholicism.  If you know any of Cardinal Newman’s story you know that his life was a living embodiment of the parable of the vine and the branches: challenge and comfort were in constant interplay, although challenge in the form of rejection and misunderstanding on the part of the Church he loved often had the upper hand. Nonetheless, Newman could write,  “Let us put ourselves into God’s hands and not be startled though he leads us by a strange way.  Let us be sure God will lead us right, that he will bring us to that which is, not indeed what we think best, nor what is best for another, but what is best for us.”

     My friends, as we go now to the altar with all our struggles, questions and uncertainties – but our joys and hopes, too – may we draw comfort, and experience deep union with Jesus who remains in us, and we in him!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303