“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is John 15:1–8:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. 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. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
I’ve been on the road for the last few days, in Washington DC for the Right Online conference, and I’m writing this in part in Reagan National while waiting for my flight. As a result, my time for reflection has been necessarily shortened, but also shrunken in a more spiritual sense. In lieu of a longer reflection, I’ll explain why that is — and why today’s Gospel speaks directly to it.
Life is composed of connections, and travel disrupts them. Traveling alone makes that more noticeable, and this time my wife flew in the opposite direction while I was gone. Even my connections to home felt cut off. Conferences provide connections of their own, and the chance to renew friendships and make new ones gives these trips a value that far outstrips the temporary disruptions to the normal connections of family, friends, and community — but that doesn’t mean that the disruptions don’t exist and don’t have an impact.
It may seem odd to talk about disconnections and disruptions in the modern age of telecommunications. After all, we’re more connected than ever before. When I first began business travel (before I was married), almost no one had cell phones, and smart phones didn’t exist. People had to run to pay phones for expensive conversations to check in with family and the office; remember the long-distance call services and the code cards we all had to carry for them? Over the last ten years, the ubiquity of smart phones, social media, text messaging, and free calling has made it easier to stay in communication.
That, however, is not quite the same thing as connection. It’s easy to communicate now, but in a way, that kind of communication tends to reaffirm that we’re adrift more than pull us together. And one does not need to be traveling to feel disconnected, either. Thanks to the ease in which people can relocate and start over, especially in the West, even staying put in one place can leave people disconnected, disoriented, and alone. That isolation can lead us to despair, and into sin, which only reinforces the sense of isolation — from God, from the people of God, and from our true selves.
I’ve traveled a few times to Rome, as readers know, and have seen many beautiful churches, art, and architecture. Among my favorite places in the Eternal City is remarkably humble, especially from the outside: the Basilica di San Clemente. The building dates back to the 13th century, but excavations in the 19th century exposed a 4th-century basilica underneath it — and a series of 1st-century structures underneath it. For 5 euro, visitors can descend 2,000 years into the past, and walk through ancient Roman baths and a Mithraic temple, as well as view some 4th-century mosaics and frescoes in various stages of restoration.
For today, though, the gem on the upper level is most relevant. The apse features a brilliant medieval mosaic depicting Jesus as the Tree of Life, and the reach of the vines (click to expand):
Crisis Magazine wrote about this mosaic and some of its meanings in November 2012, noting that the vines encompass and embrace all of nature and humanity, from “birds, hinds, baskets filled with fruit, putti (pagan cupids), a shepherd with his sheep, a peasant woman feeding chickens, and the Doctors of the Church,” and more. The scrolling effect of the vines appear in the floor’s mosaic as well, welcoming those who come to visit or worship (it’s still an active church in Rome) to the vines of Christ, and the Tree of Life.
In this, Jesus provides us all with the ultimate connection, not only to salvation, but to each other through Christ. He is the Word Incarnate through whom all of creation proceeds, and there is nothing outside of His reach. All we need to do is to choose that connection. Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper in this Gospel, “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” Jesus repeatedly implores them to remain in His love, because that connection is always there, and always whole. We choose whether to connect to it, and so connect to salvation and the whole of creation.
The image of the San Clemente mosaic provides a marvelous visual of this teaching. Just as its vines proceed from the cross and extend all the way across the floor to the door of the church, so Jesus calls us to that connection by crossing its threshold. If we stumble in sin, we do not need to remain in the dark; Jesus reaches out to embrace us and welcome us back. We only need to choose that connection, and restore ourselves to eternal life.