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Christ the True Vine icon by Unknown Greek school
Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Great Britain 50p D-Day Coin First Day Cover (6th June 1994) to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of D-Day by John W. Mills and the British Army Film and Photographic Unit

Unknown Greek school

Christ the True Vine icon, 16th century, Egg tempera on panel, Byzantine Museum, Athens, Greece / G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Vertumnus, 1591, Oil on panel, 70 x 58 cm, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden, 11615, Photo: Skokloster Castle, Sweden / Bridgeman Images

John W. Mills and the British Army Film and Photographic Unit

Great Britain 50p D-Day Coin First Day Cover (6th June 1994) to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of D-Day, 1994, Coin, Stamps, Marc Tielemans / Alamy Stock Photo

The Radicality of Life in Christ

Comparative Commentary by

Jesus’s declaration that he is the true vine opens an extended horticultural metaphor (John 15:1) that elucidates the subversive fruitfulness of persisting in Christ as his disciples carry forth his mission by the Spirit to the world.

God the Father, as the ‘Gardener’, cultivates the vine. Meanwhile its branches bear fruit, not of their own accord but in Christ by the Spirit.

As the true vine, Jesus seems implicitly to contrast and connect himself with Old Testament vine imagery, which signifies Israel’s faithlessness to YHWH (e.g. Psalm 80:8–16; Isaiah 5:1–7; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15:1–8). This contrast, according to John’s Gospel, does not belie Christianity’s Jewish heritage but rather reveals the apostasy of those Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:47–50; 8:31–59; 19:21). Christ the vine, then, connects Jesus as the truth of Israel and the life of the world.

Christ the Vine seems to capture both the vine imagery in John 15 and the Tree of Jesse tradition with its Old Testament associations. It’s the fact that Christ the Vine has achieved the form of an icon, though, that presses western understandings of this passage to go further than they might otherwise do.

Icons, based on the incarnation and transfiguration of Christ (Ouspensky and Lossky, 1999: 23–50), function as ‘windows into heaven’—a physical means by which to glimpse the glory of the eternal. Icons, in their simplicity, are not designed to stir the emotions but rather to redirect them toward the prayerful contemplation of God in service of spiritual communion. As such, Christ the Vine underscores the animate reality of the abiding into which Jesus’s disciples are called. Creaturely life is intertwined with the radicality (radix) of the resurrected Christ by the Spirit. Such life continues in the present world, yet is not of it (John 17:14–15).

Union and communion with the living Christ through prayer and obedience yield fruit to the joy, pleasure, and glory of God the Father. The bearing of fruit is an ongoing, dynamic process. This horticultural imagery of flourishing and abundance is vividly captured in Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus. The way in which Arcimboldo honours Rudolf II seems counterintuitive as he employs the absurd and subverts the norms of sixteenth-century portraiture. There is nevertheless a peculiar beauty to Vertumnus. Might the fruit of the Christian life and the beauty it portrays be counterintuitive, absurd, and even subversive of contemporary socio-cultural expectations? Might the radicality of life in Christ be strange, even foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18) as God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:8–10), while still being mysteriously attractive and relatable to shared human experience.

Jesus’s parting words and actions do seem counterintuitive as—in the broader context of John 15—he washes the disciples’ feet (John 13:1–17), assures them of his presence by the Spirit even after his departure (John 14:15–21), and imparts a peace (shalom) that is not of this world (John 14:27–29). Not only do these actions make no sense to the disciples, Jesus explains how the world will also reject and persecute them for the apparent irrationality of their faithful obedience to him. The fruit they will bear by the Spirit as they abide in him, and love ‘the other’ sacrificially (John 15:18–16:11), will appear absurd. Such abiding may get them killed (John 16:1–2). The fruit they bear, nevertheless, will subvert the powers and principalities of this world as Jesus has condemned and defeated ‘the ruler of this world’ in the dawning of the Kingdom (John 16:11, 33).  As they share in his gifts, they will manifest a strangely attractive joy (John 15:11; 16:19–24).

Stamps made to be ‘sent’ and coins made to be ‘spent’ may seem useful illustrations of the missional aspects of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’s farewell discourse. Jesus calls his disciples to participate in this sobering mission (John 14:31) and then commissions them in the power of the Spirit (John 15:16) to fulfil their purpose by propagating the fruit of the Christian life in the world (John 15:16–17).

But the Fiftieth Anniversary of D-Day First Day Cover offers us another perspective. Its contents may appear to occupy a suspended middle of unrealized purpose: a coin that has not been spent and stamps that have never been sent (even as those whom they commemorate have).

But perhaps the uncirculated, mint-condition coin and the postmarked stamps fulfil a different purpose: ‘sending a message’ in a different way; a ‘sending’ which is at the same time an ‘abiding’. The sending of disciples by Christ, who is himself sent by the Father, is categorically different from the sending of soldiers to war. The radicality of the Christian life will be costly—requiring sacrifice (John 16:1–4)—but never futile. There is hope for those who ‘abide’ in Christ even amidst pain, suffering, and loss. They shall live, even as he lives as the resurrected One, eternally ‘sent’ by the Father and never expended.

 

References

Ouspensky, Leonid and Vladimir Lossky. 1999. The Meaning of Icons, trans. by G.E.H. Palmer and E. KadlouBovsky (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)