A guest preacher attended on Saturday evening. This homily was for the Sunday morning Mass, at which a baby called Lily was baptised.
Are you ready to be pruned?
Every branch in me that bears no fruit my Father cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more.
It is the nature of a grapevine to grow many seeds – small grapes, and lots of them. But we prefer fat, juicy fruit and so a vinedresser will pluck out some of the new grapes so that the plant puts all its energy into those which remain. It is God’s way!
As a parish community, we are going to be pruned. Archbishop George is beginning to discuss with his clergy “root and branch” restructuring of the diocese. At the moment his focus is on Cardiff City, where some church buildings may have to close, and others may share priests or experience a change of Mass times. Neighbouring parishes may have to run joint catechetical programmes. You see, at the moment, there are no curates. Almost every parish is a one-priest parish. Our diocese is a vine with many small grapes, none of which can grow into the rich, juicy fruit which God is looking for. By pruning away buildings and structures, those which remain can bear fruit in abundance.
Our Archbishop’s attention has not yet turned to our parish, but be prepared: change is coming! And it does us good to ask as a community: “Which of our current projects should we drop, or run less regularly, so that the things that we do do, we can do well?”
As individual Christians, we will be pruned. We, busy human beings, have a thousand aspirations for things we want to do: books to read, films to see, good works to do, friends to visit, phone calls to make, emails to send – and life catches up with us! We can’t do all the things we want to do! Circumstances often get in the way. A child is born. We fall ill. The demands of our job change.
But something deeper and more mysterious also happens. We mature, and our priorities change. We no longer take joy in the things which excited us when we were children; and if we are growing in our relationship with God, then over time, we will find more satisfaction in things which bless other people, and less in pursuits aimed purely at our own leisure. When we run up against limits beyond our control, or when we hear the whisper of that inner voice that calls us to noble sacrifices, we can meet the challenge with anger or with grace. True grace is allowing our heavenly Father to prune us, for he is looking for the fruit which will follow. And Scripture tells us that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Jesus also said:
As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
Today we are going to take a beautiful Lily, and graft her on to the vine-stock which is Christ. It is part of the wonder of nature that we can graft new branches on to a healthy plant. Within that plant are xylem and phloem, vessels that bring water from the roots to the branches, and return goodness from the leaves to the vine. The graft will only succeed if the vessels grow together and the flow is complete.
At the church door, Lily’s parents and godparents made promises to bring her up in the Christian faith. What does that mean in practice?
First, you are promising that Lily will be nourished by the true Vine, which is Christ. As she grows, you will read her the stories of Jesus, of the other heroes of the Bible, and of the Christian saints. The living water which is God’s Word will be poured into her. And when she is old enough to make her First Communion, you will teach her that Jesus wishes to nourish her with his Body and Blood every week, for the rest of her life. This will give true life to her soul. She will find her strength in belonging to Jesus, just as the xylem is the woody tissue which gives strength to the vine.
Second, as a branch returns the goodness from its leaves to the trunk, so you will teach Lily to return praise and thanks to Jesus Christ. When she becomes able to speak, you will teach her to pray “Thank you Jesus!” As she grows older, you will teach her to ask Jesus for the gifts which she needs in her life, remembering the promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel – that our prayers will be answered, but only if we remain rooted in him. You will also teach her that when she fails in her Christian life, the poison of sin can also flow away into the depths of the true Vine, but she must be ready to make confession to release the sin and receive Christ’s purifying grace in return.
Lily’s parents have asked for some appropriate female saints to be added to the litany for her baptism. I have chosen Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a native American who died at the age of 24 after becoming a Christian and choosing to devote her life to virginity, who is often called the “Lily of the Mohawks“. I have also chosen St Winefride, a Welsh saint who similarly chose to devote herself to Christ.
If our Lily grows up in Wales she will learn the hymn Calon Lân which, translated into English declares:
I don’t ask for a luxurious life, the world’s gold or its fine pearls,
I ask for a happy heart, an honest heart, a pure heart.
A pure heart full of goodness is fairer than the pretty lily,
None but a pure heart can sing, sing in the day and sing in the night.
So, people of Wales, be careful! If you sing Calon Lân at a rugby match, this is what you are asking for!
Finally, when Lily is more mature, you will teach her that life as a Christian will not always be easy. Lily is going to be pruned. She will need to sacrifice some of her hopes and desires in order to serve others. She may find herself living in a nation where faith is only grudgingly tolerated, and she will need to be strong. But by standing up for her faith, she will become the saint which God is calling her to be. You will teach her that she has a Father in heaven who loves her, and that when challenges come her way, He is pruning her, for she is also called to bear fruit in abundance.
And if Lily becomes a very brave Christian, she will learn to pray the prayer which each one of us can pray, if we are keen to become saints:
Heavenly Father, prune me, for I wish to be fruitful!
Are you ready to be pruned?