“Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.” You’re going to hear those words again in a few minutes, because they are the beginning of the Third Eucharistic prayer, which I’ll be using today. I think they speak well of what we hear in today’s Gospel.
I remember back in my second year of seminary, I took my first moral theology class. One of the first tests we took had that 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?” Only a Jesuit moral theologian would ask a question like that! 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.
That’s what today’s Gospel is all about. Not about being a rock, that would be silly, but by rightly giving God praise by being what we were created to be: the most fully human people we can be. Now that might seem like a no-brainer. Hey, we can all be human, right? 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 thing we are to do is, quite frankly, painful. And that is to get pruned. I’ve pruned more than a few bushes at my parents’ house in my day. When I was growing up, I made the mistake of doing it well, and so I got that job every spring! I didn’t really mind doing it though, but I often thought about the fact that this process could not be all that painless for the shrub. It involved cutting away branches that looked for all the world like they were healthy and life-giving, and even cutting some branches radically away.
Well, we have to give in to that kind of painful process in our own lives too, I think. We have to be willing to get some of us pruned away if we are to grow as healthy and fully human people. This process is painfully difficult, but we recognize that the things we prune away 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.
The second thing we must do is to remain in Christ. That’s what he says in the Gospel:
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
And I’d have to say that they key here is the word “remain” because Jesus uses it four times in that short quote! “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? Don’t even ask me about my new year’s resolutions! 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 and continue 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” look like? Unfortunately, we don’t get a clear-cut blueprint for that in today’s Gospel. And the truth is, remaining in Christ is going to be different for every person. Just like my pruning of mom’s shrubs wasn’t a once-and-for-all activity, we are going to have to do some pruning every now and then so that we can remain in Christ. And so we’ll have to continue to be on the lookout for parts of our lives that are not ultimately life-giving and prune them away. But we’ll also have to look out for opportunities that will fertilize our growth. 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. We have to be willing to renew ourselves in Christ every single day of our lives.
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.