On Sunday, May 6, 2012, Bishop William Shomali, Latin Patriarchal Vicar, celebrated mass at the Jerusalem kehilla. We publish here his homily on this happy occasion.
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am filled with joy in celebrating with you the feast of Saint James, patron of your community and of our diocese. I have wished to be and to pray with you and I realize that the Lord is answering my wish today. Your community is important for the Church of Jerusalem. Not because of its number but because of the meaning of your presence here. You continue, in time, the first Church which originated from Judaism. Furthermore, our Arabic and Hebrew speaking communities are like the two lungs by means of which the Church of the Holy Land breathes. Or to use an image from the Gospel of today, we are two branches which receive their vital fluid and strength from the same vine which is Jesus Christ our Savior. I thank Father David Neuhaus, our patriarchal vicar for his kind invitation. I pray that you continue to witness to Jesus Christ in the midst of the Jewish and Israeli society.
It is not easy as it was not easy for Saint Paul, who is the protagonist of the first reading. After his astonishing conversion, he encountered much opposition from his Jewish brothers. But the more opposition he met with, the stronger he became, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Thanks to him many Jews and pagans discovered that Jesus is the Messiah. Difficulties and challenges should not discourage us. The fact that we are a minority among Jewish and Muslim majorities should not give us any complex or cause any discouragement. The first Christian community of Jerusalem was strong despite its weakness and small number. How much consolation did it receive from the Holy Spirit in that period: “The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace,” says the second reading. “It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers” (Acts 9:31).
Allow me now to meditate, with you, on the parable of the vine offered by the Gospel of this Sunday. It is a wonderful teaching for us.
The vine in the Old Testament symbolized Israel. When Israel obeyed the commandments of the Lord, it was a fruitful vine. When Israel disobeyed his commandments, it became a sterile vine. In the context of today’s Gospel, the Vine is Jesus Christ. We are honored to be His branches.
I was impressed by the number of times Jesus, in Saint John’s Gospel, describing the relation between the vine and the branches, used the verb “remain”. I counted 11 times. The same verb is mentioned twice in the second reading. This points to the importance of this verb.
The disciples should remain in Jesus as he remains in them.
The branch should remain in the vine. The words of Jesus should remain in the disciples.
The disciples remain in the love of Jesus if they keep his commandments. The fruits of the disciple should remain.
Another expression is also repeated often. “To bear fruits”. It is repeated 6 times:
We can easily note that remaining in Jesus and bearing fruits are related as a cause to its effect. The dictionary defines “To remain” by these verbs: to stay, to stay united, to stay in the same place or in the same status, to continue, to go on being, to continue to exist, to endure, to persist. These synonyms are important. But as the Gospel relates to a supernatural sphere which cannot be described in words, the metaphor of the vine is the best way to make us aware of our wonderful and vital relationship with Jesus.
But how does Jesus remain in us?
There are three ways:
The first way is through his words: Jesus remains in us if we remain in his words: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want” (John 15:7). Jesus and his word are one. When we listen to him, we become one with him. His words are like the vital fluid which proceeds from the vine and nourishes the branches to make them bear fruits. Consequently, let us ask ourselves: Do we read a paragraph of the Bible daily in order to remain in Him and He in us? Do we draw power and consolation from the daily meditation of the Gospel? The last Synod on the Middle East proscribed daily contact with the Word of God, which should become our daily bread.
Furthermore, the Word of God and his commandments are one reality, expressed in Hebrew by the word Davar. The words of Jesus remain in us if we keep His commandments. “Those who keep His commandments remain in Him, and He in them”, says the second reading.
The second way to remain in him is through love:
Here it is sufficient to quote Jesus himself: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. … My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:9-10.12).
It is relevant to ask ourselves some more questions: Do we love our neighbors, the people we work with? Are we ready to forgive the evil that they did to us? Are we ready, like Saint Paul, to follow Jesus Christ and to break down the dividing wall of enmity? (Eph. 2:14). Do we love for the sake of God and not for personal interest?
To remain in Jesus is to remain in his love and in the love of our brothers and sisters.
The third way we remain in Jesus is through the Eucharist.
The sacrament of the Eucharist illustrates our unity with Him in a better way than the image of the vine and the branches. The image of food is strong. What is a stronger image of unity than eating bread, this bread that becomes part of our body? What is stronger than drinking wine, which becomes part of our blood? How strong is the expression used by Jesus: eat my flesh and drink my blood? It is an impressive image to convey and realize unity between Him and ourselves. This image says more than itself. It produces what it means and means what it produces.
In conclusion, I would like to talk about the fruits that are supposed to be borne by the branches. Which are they?
They are the same fruits mentioned in the letter to Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galations 5:22). We all long to bear such good fruits in our life.
So, under which condition can the branch bear fruits? It needs only to remain attached to the vine and accept to be pruned and cleaned. What is the condition which makes us bear fruits of love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity etc ….?” It is to remain united to Jesus through hearing his words, through our fidelity to his love, through keeping his commandments, through accepting the difficulties of life through which the Lord prunes and purifies us.
Dear brothers and sisters,
We are close to the time for communion. Let us long for this moment in which Jesus himself, the spiritual vine, comes himself to be united to the weak branches that we are. This is a paradox of our faith. Normally, it is the branch which should be transplanted to the vine. But here it is the vine which comes to animate and vivify the branch. This parable teaches us how much the Lord loves us. He is the first to love and will be ever faithful to his promises. For this reason, we are invited to praise him with the responsorial psalm: “I will praise you Lord in the Assembly of your people.” Please repeat with me: “I will praise you Lord in the Assembly of your people.”
+ William Shomali