‘Abide With Me’: How Generations of Christians Saw ‘Christ the Grape Vine’

We were blessed to have had several children receive their First Communion after being prepared through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. As the big day draws near, the program makes a special point to emphasize Jesus’ words “I am the vine; you are the branches.”

Our catechesis guides always told us that children relate in a powerful way to this metaphor. “With these simple words Jesus helps us to grasp the communion we share with God and one another,” children learn.

Throughout the history of the Church, not just children but scholars too have seen this metaphor as a central explanation of the mystery of the Eucharist.

The Fathers of the Church take the words almost literally.

Jesus’ said “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Jesus is fond of nature metaphors. He compares his kingdom to seed growing and himself to both a grain of wheat and a vine. The constant, unstoppable growth of plants tells us something about God’s power and the deep connection it has with the Host and Chalice at Mass.

St. Ambrose says it helps to imagine Jesus on the cross like the vine growing on a trellis.

St. Augustine wrote, “Christ would not have been the vine had he not been man, yet he could not have supplied such grace to the branches had he not also been God.”

The same paradox applies to the Eucharist: Christ would not be available in the Eucharist were he not in the form of bread; and the Eucharist would do us no good if it were not the Presence of God.

The Fathers parsed each part of the parable.

The fruit of the wine is good works, they said.

After all, said St. Cyril of Alexandria,

“If we demonstrate what kind of union we have by only a mere barren confession of faith — without sealing the bond of our union by the good works that proceed from love — we will be branches indeed, but still dead and without fruit.”

Jesus says that his Father cares for the vine by removing useless branches, saying, “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” The Fathers went into great detail about what that might look like.

The pruning knife is the Word.

St. Clement of Alexandria recalled that the Book of Hebrews says “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit.” He said this is the paring instrument the vinedresser uses. Specifically, he says, “The Word — the knife — clears away the wanton shoots, compelling the impulses of the soul to become fruitful, not to indulge in lust.”

Vanity is what is pruned away.

This word works by “reaching into the depths of each person’s inmost soul and having every person’s hidden purpose reveled before it as God,” he said. “It brings its keen edge to bear on our vain pursuits by the working of the spirit.”

We also get pruned by persecution.

St. John Chrysostom said Jesus spoke of pruning “with relation also to the persecutions then coming upon them,” and that the vinedresser parable shows that “persecutions make men stronger.”

St. Cyril agreed, saying, “Our God who loves virtue instructs us by pain and tribulation.”

Catholics see the power of the vine to this day.

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says.

Pope Francis explained what “abiding in the vine” did for him.

“What I really prefer is adoration in the evening, even when I get distracted and think of other things, or even fall asleep praying. In the evening then, between seven and eight o’clock, I stay in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour in adoration.”

Mother Teresa explained at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976 that her sisters have learned just how important that is.

“To be able to live this life of vows,” she said, “we need our life to be woven with the Eucharist. That’s why we begin our day with Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. With him, we go forward. And when we come back in the evening we have one hour of adoration before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and at this you will be surprised, that we have not had to cut down our work for the poor.”

In our “daily Holy Hour our love for Jesus becomes more intimate, our love for each other more understanding, and our love for the poor more compassionate,” she said elsewhere.

This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Emilia Kaczanowska photo of Christ Grape Vine

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.