I remember back in my second year of seminary, I took my first moral theology class. One of the first tests we took had a line from the third Eucharistic Prayer on it: “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.” This line came along with the question: “Rocks are part of creation. So how does a rock give God praise?” The answer, we had been taught, is “by being a rock.” Certainly a rock could not sing a song of praise or pray a psalm, but just by being what it was intended to be—a rock—it gave God praise.
The implications of the question were that every part of creation gives God praise by being most fully what it was created to be. Trees give praise to God by bearing leaves, flowers and fruit; animals give praise to God by running, ruling the jungle, barking, flying or whatever it was they were given power to do. We then, are also created to give God praise by being most fully what we were created to be – by being fully human. This is what Jesus tells us at the end of today’s Gospel: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8).
Being fully human might seem easy to do. But that, I think, is based on a flawed notion of what it means to be human. How many times have we all said something like, “sure, I am a sinner; I’m only human, right?” But being a sinner is not the same as being fully human. The most fully human person that ever walked the face of the earth was Jesus Christ. Jesus, we believe, was like us in all things, except sin. This is how we know that sin is not part of what it means to be fully human. And sin obviously is not something that gives God praise. Indeed, that last line of the Gospel seems to leave no room for sin, and sets a rather high standard of what it means to give God praise: that we must bear much fruit – not just some fruit, but much fruit – and become disciples of Jesus.
To become more fully human is a life-long task, and we know that it will never be fully realized this side of heaven. But while we are on earth, that’s our primary responsibility: to give God praise by becoming more fully what we were created to be in the first place. Today’s Gospel gives us a picture of how we’re supposed to do that. It mentions two specific things we are to do.
The first is to get pruned. We, the branches of Jesus’ vine are destined to be pruned so that we can bear more fruit. Now, a couple of weeks ago, I was pruning bushes at my parents’ house. While the bushes never said a word to me, I was guessing this pruning was not a painless process for them! It involves cutting away parts of the bush that looked for all the world like they were life-giving, and it involved cutting some branches radically away. All in the name of becoming a healthier shrub.
We too have to be pruned sometimes. And it’s not a painless process for us either: it involves maybe cutting away some parts of our lives that look for all the world like they are life-giving. But we recognize that these things can be really destructive: relationships that entangle us in ways that are not healthy, pleasures that lead to sin, habits that are not virtuous. However enjoyable these relationships or activities may seem to be, and however painful it may be to end them, end them we must in the name of pruning our lives to be healthier, to be more fully the people we were created to be.
I’ve done some pruning in my own life recently. And I can tell you it has indeed been painful. This past week, I moved out of my room at the seminary. It is a room that has served me well for the last four years, but, as one of our formators told us at our end-of-the-year Mass, “it’s time for you to go.” At the end of it, I took one last look around before I left and saw a room much cleaner than it had been in about a year! – but also much emptier. There was sadness, and I realized the sadness was not so much leaving the little but functional room, but that leaving it represented the sadness of leaving behind all the things the room been for me: the times I studied with my friends there for a test; the times we had met there for prayer or to discuss the Scriptures in our formation group; the times we had just hung out there, watching a movie, or wasting time together. Those activities and relationships had been life-giving to me for five years, and now it was time to go. I realize that as good as those relationships had been for me, it is time to let go and to move on to the priestly life God has been and is now calling me to live. This pruning is painful, but in doing so, I can become more fully the person God created me to be.
The second thing the Gospel calls us to do today is to remain in me. “Me,” of course, means Jesus, and just in case we don’t get the point, Jesus gives us that instruction four times. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, as the branch remains in the vine. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you can bear much fruit. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you will not wither and dry up only to be tossed out and burned as rubbish. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that whatever you truly need and want will be done, and so that you can bear much fruit and be my disciples.
I think we can all get on board with remaining in Jesus, because this reading makes it sound completely wonderful. And it is wonderful. If we want to be truly happy, if we want ultimate fulfillment in life, if we really want to be the wonderful creation God made us to be, we must remain in Jesus, because, as he says, “without me you can do nothing.” And that’s true. How many times have we tried to better ourselves and lost sight of the goal before we even started? How many times have we tried to stamp out a pattern of sin in our lives, only to fall victim to it time and time again? How many times have we tried to repair relationships only to have egos, hurts or resentments get in the way? When we forget to start our work with God’s help, we are destined to fail. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. Well does he advise us to remain in him.
But what does “remain in me” mean? How do we do that? Is there a blueprint or some steps we can follow to make sure we’re remaining? Unfortunately, we don’t get any of that in today’s Scripture. We are told that because we’ve had the word preached to us, we are “already pruned” and are on the way to remaining in him. But this remaining, much like the seasonal pruning, is not a once-and-for-all thing. We have to check our growth daily, we have to examine where we are remaining every day. That might start with Sunday Mass attendance, and perhaps move on to daily Mass, praying devotions like the Rosary, reading Scripture every day, and taking time at the end of the day to see whether we’ve been part of the vine, or are in danger of breaking away from it.
Remaining in Jesus is different for every person. We’ve all been called to remain in him in different ways. Some are called to remain in Jesus in the context of married and family life. Others are called to remain in Jesus by living life as a priest, deacon, or religious brother or sister. Others remain in Jesus by chastely living as single men and women. Each of these ways of remaining in
Jesus has a different style of prayer and embraces different acts of charity and service and relationships with others. All of them are ways of remaining part of the vine, but they all must have that seasonal pruning and that daily examination that guides them back to the vine day in and day out.
On this Mother’s Day, I am particularly struck by the spiritual example of my mother and my grandmothers. These women have been faithful witnesses to the Gospel for me and have always encouraged me to live the most fully human life I possibly could. They encouraged me to become all that God had created me to be, and if not for their witness and their urging, I know I would not be standing here today. One of the many gifts God gives us in this life to encourage us in the very hard work of pruning and remaining is the gift of those who have been mother to us. These might have been our natural mothers and grandmothers, our godmothers, our aunts or sisters or some other nurturing female presence in our lives. For all of them today, let us give thanks, and praise our God for the ways they have helped us to be what God created us to be.
All creation, as Eucharistic Prayer III tells us, rightly gives God praise. But we aren’t rocks. It’s not so easy for us to be most fully the wonderful human creation we were made to be. But that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is our calling and our joy. May we all support one another in our times of pruning and through our journey of remaining. Encouraged by one another, we can all sing together with the psalmist, “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people” (Psalm 22:26a).