About mid-February, usually right after Valentine’s Day, I start getting antsy. I’ve had enough of winter and start looking for snowdrops and the lenten rose I planted by the driveway. By early March I’m thinking of the garden. I arm myself with clippers and a wheelbarrow and set off across the lawn. Fallen branches go in. Dead wood gets cut off, tossed on top. Suckers come off too, as do branches that head into the center of the bush or point down to the ground. Too-long, weak branches get trimmed above a bud. No sense spending strength on unhealthy growth, or letting upstarts block out sun and air! The sap’s not flowing yet, so it’s a good time to prune. I don’t want to damage the plants, just set them up for a good year.
I’ve never tried to grow grapes, but I understand the best ones come only with the kind of care I’ve just described. Leave a vine to its own devices and that’s exactly what you’ll get – a lot of vine. If what you want is a showy arbor and a base for your Christmas wreath, you’re all set. But there will be no fat juicy grapes on the table, no jelly for the winter and definitely no wine.
I try to remember this when I’m in a “winter season” in my life. The spiritual sap doesn’t seem to be flowing, my leaves and fruit — things I took pride in, evidence of talent, usefulness, and health — have fallen or dried up. Trying to hold off winter, I send out other shoots, try to cover my bare branches with activity. Then God comes at me with his pruners and I’m tempted to despair. But he has only good in mind!
Jesus wants us to learn from the grapevine.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser,” he tells his disciples in John 15. “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
The “vine” in his analogy is the trunk of the cultivated grapevine, the upright part you see as you drive through wine country. It’s the solid, established, rooted center of life for the whole plant. The “branches” are the arms that bear fruit. But without the help of the vinedresser (someone who tends them carefully with the goal of helping them thrive and be as fruitful as possible), the vine becomes a sprawling mess.
Jesus describes what the vinedresser does with branches that don’t bear fruit:
— If they have fallen to the ground, he lifts them up (the primary meaning of the verb often translated “takes away” in verse 2). He might prop them on a stone or train them to a trellis. This exposes them to air and sunlight. It also keeps them from spending their strength on rooting into the ground, instead of taking their life from the main vine.
— He “cleans” the branches by pruning away all but a few shoots, so the energy can go into making fruit (see vss. 2-3).
You can trust the Vinedresser
Everything the vinedresser does is for the health of the plant, with the goal of producing fruit: even and especially the pruning. Pruning is not punishing, it is evidence of loving care. He wants you to bear fruit! “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples,” he said. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love […] I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (vss. 8-9, 16).
Just like the grapevine, our spiritual life goes through seasons. A fruitful vine does not always have fruit on it, or even leaves. Winter is a necessary time of rest and repair, of putting energy again into deepening roots, of “lifting up” and “making clean.” All with the goal of another fruitful harvest.
I am struck by the image of the winter grapevine. Pruned clean of all excess, it stands like a cross, arms outstretched and bare. To all outward appearances, it might as well be dead. But it is that “death” that sets the conditions for life. Without a death, there can be no resurrection.
I wonder if St. Paul had that in mind when he wrote this to the Christians in Galatia:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
Lord, help me to abide in you and to entrust myself to the hands of the Father, the loving vinedresser.
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“Abiding” (from the Greek menein, to remain, abide, continue) is a prominent theme in the writings of John, who gave us Jesus’s “vine and branches” analogy. John 15 is well worth meditating on, in its entirety! See especially verses 7-12, which zero in on the “how” of abiding in Christ. John gives us more details here:
- John 6:56-58 – abiding through the Eucharist
- John 8:31 – abiding through the Word
- 1 John 2:5-6 – abiding by obedience and following Christ
- 1 John 3:24 – abiding by keeping his commandments
- I John 4:13-16 – abiding by knowing and believing and confessing to the truth; by living in love
- 2 John 1:9 – by abiding in the doctrine of Christ
(See also Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17:5-8,13 for a similar image of a tree planted by water)
© 2018 Sarah Christmyer
Mitch Carroll says
Wow! That post today hit me right in the heart. I’ve been feeling like “what’s going on Jesus? Where are you? Where are you in me?” A doldrum certainly. Interestingly, my wife does the exact same thing: getting antsy, planning the garden work (for me), and then pruning. Thanks for this post and thank the Lord for working through you to me.
Nicole M says
Thank you so much for writing this. I am in a winter season myself.
Blessings to you.