True Vine Wreath
Dorothy Porcher Holland
I am the vine, you are the branches, whoever abides in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. John 15:5
Jesus often taught in parables. These seemingly simple stories helped his followers to understand profound truths and weighty concepts. Timeless lessons, many of them are familiar even to people who have never attended church or picked up a Bible; they have entered the cultural consciousness. They remain relevant even in a culture that is vastly different than that of Biblical times and continue to offer Christians guidance and wisdom.
In my ministry to children and teenagers, I frequently teach with parables. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-based approach to faith formation, has a strong focus on parables and a unique approach to sharing them with young people. One that we focus on, particularly with the six-to-nine-year-old students, is the Parable of the True Vine. Although there are a number of important messages in this story, the ultimate lesson is about being in a relationship with Jesus and abiding in his love. When we present to the children, before we even read the parable to them, we begin by saying, “Let’s ask the question: Who are you, Jesus?” After reading the text, we go through it again, line by line, engaging them with questions to ensure that they understand and giving them opportunity for reflection.
Then, amid additional thought-provoking questions, we ask, “Have we heard an answer to the question ‘Who are you, Jesus?’” and give the children time to ponder that in their hearts. The following week we will return to this lesson, this time focusing on the idea of abiding in him and what we can do to help the vine grow more branches, healthy branches, and take over the garden.
About ten years ago, I noticed a potted scuppernong grape vine at Costco. I was very amused because most people consider scuppernongs to be a weed; these vines grow wild all over the South! Who would buy one? Yet I stopped there in the aisle in front of the unassuming plastic pot, tiny trellis and curling tendrils of grapevine reaching out in every direction. I was transported to my grandmother’s house in Bonneau, SC, which had an enormous grape arbor in the yard. In the summer the vines trailed down like curtains on all four sides; it was my castle, my playhouse, my fortress of solitude. It was shaded, secluded and snack providing. Many days, I played there for hours. As I stood in Costco, elbows resting on my cart, my thoughts moved on to the parable. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd presentation calls for some type of “viney” plant and a photo of grapes. In the many versions I have seen, there has been no mention of having a real grape vine because that is ridiculous. A grape vine in a pot? Where would you even find such a thing? Well, apparently, you find it at Costco.
That tiny scuppernong vine came home with me that day and then spent many weeks at Trinity Montessori School representing the True Vine far better than my Golden Pothos ever had. When the school year ended, it came home and was planted next to the gate into my front yard. I suspect my neighbors wish that it hadn’t because it has taken over the gate and the fence, and if we are not careful, it will take over the yard. My husband, Jonathan, tends the vine; it is the only yard task he enjoys. He has trained it into a welcoming arch over the gate and grown it into a partial awning over our terrace, where it shields us from the summer heat. It provides shelter for birds, squirrels, anoles, the occasional snake and, one exciting day, a raccoon. Neighborhood children delight in picking the grapes in late summer, spitting the seeds on the ground with joy. By October, the leaves have turned and fallen, giving us a taste of autumn while the live oaks stand, ever green, overhead. The twisted brown vines have a spooky look in the dark on Halloween that is invariably enhanced with giant spiders and skeletons. In late November, Jonathan prunes the vine as it lies dormant, waiting for spring. This year, he had to trim it quite a lot — a good hard prune. He and my daughter, Eudora, gathered the scattered pieces and coiled them up into a wreath for me. I went to the boxes of Christmas decorations and found some bits and bobbles of Christmases past to adorn it. Because I am craft-impaired, I sent pictures to a talented friend and asked if I was doing it right. I got my answer an hour later when she showed up with a basket of greenery that she had gathered in her yard. She stood alone, wearing a mask, in my carport, and made it beautiful.
As we endure this final month of a very difficult year and look ahead to Christmas, we are abiding, together, in the season of Advent. It is providing a shelter for us from the outside world, reminding us what life really is all about, pointing us toward Christmas — not in the way of Cyber Week deals, Hallmark Christmas movies, and anxiety about how to see family and friends safely. No, Advent is reminding us to look inward, upward and outward, to prepare our hearts (this year, in so many ways, our broken hearts) to receive Christ anew. To relearn who he is. To find our way toward him and abide there in him and he in us.
He is the vine, and we are the branches.
Though it is the year with no parties, no hugs, no caroling, no great family feasts, even if the Christmas Pageant is held via Zoom, we have hope. When it feels as though the Grinch has stolen Christmas (and summer and school and so much more!), Advent is here to help us remember that when we truly abide in him, our joy will be complete. Advent gives us hope, which we need more than ever this year.
He is the vine, and we are the branches.
We are all connected by the True Vine. No matter how far away we are, we are held together, bound together.
There is a wreath hanging over my mantle right now that is made of love. Love of the God who created and provides for my scuppernong vine, love of the man who tends it, love of the husband and child who created beauty by binding yard trimmings together, love of a friend who took time out of her busy day to take the simple brown twisted wreath and make it into an expression of joy and celebration. Every time I look up at it, I am reminded that my connection to those I love remains. Even though I haven’t hugged my parents in eight months or seen my in-laws in over a year, we are bound by love. When I wave at my church family from a distance and try to smile with my eyes, we are still in communion with one another. We will get through this, together, all of us, because love always finds a way. Just like it found a way into this world via a manger in Bethlehem.