John 15:1-8, Fifth Sunday of Lent
Branches have stories to tell and lots of lessons to teach.
The one year I lived in London, there was a tree outside my room window that I got to know pretty well. I used to sit before that tree, prayer book or coffee mug in hand. In the spring and summer, its abundance of leaves virtually blocked any view of the world outside. But with its seasonal shedding of leaves always came a sad but lovely gift: the widening glimpse of the autumn and winter sky in the open spaces between its branches.
Today’s Gospel reading about the vine and its branches made me think of that tree and the stories its branches told in the different seasons I had seen it through. If we could, as the Lord suggests in the Gospel, think of ourselves as branches, what stories would they tell? Would your life here and now be better symbolized by a branch heavy with leaves or freed of them? Would you think of the season in your life right now as a branch blossoming with flowers or bearing fruits? If you pause and examine your life, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of the sky between its branches.
I can think of four types of branches that can represent seasons in our lives, each one with both an invitation and a temptation. If you look at your life here and now, which type of branch would it be?
A branch full of leaves: This is the type of branch we usually imagine on a tree–a branch heavy with leaves. Our childhood drawings of trees always had leaves; in fact, the branches of the trees we sketched were usually invisible, hidden behind their leaves. Throw in a few flowers blossoming among the leaves, and you end up with the prettiest possible branch.
A branch full of leaves and flowers represents a season of sunshine and spring, when the sky is cloudless and the bluest of blue, and when everything is proceeding as well as it should. If all is well in your life right now, and you’re actually enjoying it, then this is the branch for you. The invitation is to savor each moment, making sure to pause, listen to the rustling of the leaves and count every leaf, every flower on the tree.
There are two dangers when we’re going through such a season: to rush away and miss enjoying all this completely–or to want to cling to them, worrying about how long they’ll last and in the process, also miss the gift of the present moment.
A branch bearing fruits: This branch stands not so much for an enjoyable life, but a fulfilling one, a time in our life when all our hard work is paying off, and after all the toil and all the wait, we are now finally reaping the rewards.
Fruit-bearing branches remind us to be grateful, to give thanks to God for seeing us through and giving us the needed resources and support to accomplish what we needed to accomplish. The best expression of gratitude is to share the fruits we are enjoying with others and to resist the temptation to keep every single one of them to ourselves, hoarding them, or just boasting about them.
A branch hiding nests: There is a third kind of branch that I think can also stand for our lives. We have the branch that, no matter what state it is in, is nursing nests. Sometimes hidden behind the leaves of a tree is a precious nest, where a bird broods over her eggs or feeds her young in hiding.
Maybe we’re at a point in our lives when our life is devoted almost entirely to mentoring others, helping them to find themselves, or to raising children or caring for a loved one who is ill. There can be no more selfless season in our lives: We are called to a generosity that we sometimes don’t even realize we are capable of, but often we end up surprising ourselves.
The temptation we face here is our natural resistance to the prospect of an empty nest.
There will come a time when we need to let go of whoever or whatever it is that we have been entrusted to nurse. Because we have invested so much in them, we are reluctant to set them free. But there is no better time to remind ourselves that we have never meant to be an end in ourselves in the first place, but merely invited to remain a means.
A branch bare with leaves: Finally, we come to the saddest state of any branch, a branch that has been stripped completely of its leaves. The empty branches of autumn have often been used to symbolize a time of loneliness and loss. We have known such times, when things aren’t quite going so well in our lives. The loss of leaves calls to mind times when we have suffered losses ourselves: the loss of a loved one, of a valued dream, of meaning in life.
Bereft of leaves, with neither flower nor fruit, we stand alone; even our nests are empty. At such times, we can’t help feeling that we have lost our self-identity and self-worth. We begin to question who we are and what we’re worth. The danger in going through such a season is despair. But as we know, it’s also the best time to remember that we are, after all, just a branch, and like all the other branches, we belong to a tree, which is the source of our nourishment and the source of our lives. It’s so easy to forget this basic connection to the tree when our branches carry so many things.
This may well be the “pruning” that the Gospel talks about, and as our Lord reminds us today: He is the Vine; we are but the branches. The autumns of our lives remind us to cling to the Lord, and more than ever, to rely on Him. For me, this is the most important message of our Gospel today. It is an often-forgotten truth because of the leaves, flowers, fruits, and nests that often clutter our lives.
We are just the branch, but our Lord Jesus–He is the tree.
Image: From ethanshowtodraw YouTube Channel