Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 8, 2023
Colico, Lecco Italy
Fr. Andrew O’Connor
First the bad news. The hot, dry summer here in Italy shrank the grape harvest to 50% of normal yields. The good news is that the fruit is good. Good for wine that is. No “moffa” – the mold that ferments the grape on the vine. Less wine but better wine. In the cultivation of the grape for wine, adversity produces good fruit. Without cultivation the vine produces little or no yield. These small and bitter grapes are the proverbial “wild grapes” of the Prophet Isaiah’s complaint. Acini Acerbi The energy of the plant is wasted on the growth of the vine in all directions. Whereas, the pruned vine creates a root system. Its energy is spent on fruit, the seed, reproduction. If good grapes in adverse conditions mature full of sugar and leathery fruit, it seems absurd to think that the effort of Isaiah’s friend is so fruitless. I am near the mouth of the Adda River, the source of Lake Como at the base of the Alps. It is October and chestnuts are falling from trees. On a walk up to San Rocco this afternoon, I saw a man with his dog, picking chestnuts out of their sea-urchin casings and filling a bag with them. Another couple walked by with five or six prized porcini mushrooms. It was as if they just got married. Chestnuts and porcini mushrooms just come this time of year. There’s the woods. Go and get some. Grapes, however, are a different matter. Grapes are the craft of much care. It is safe to say a vineyard is coterminous with civilization, and with Western Civilization and its antecedents in the Levant.
While First Isaiah dawns in the 6th Century BC, the bulk of the Hebrew prophets flourish in the 5th C. BC. The German historian Karl Jaspers claims a world-wide axis of history happened in the in the 5th C BC. From Confucius and Lao Tse in China, to Buddha and the Upanishads of Hinduism to the rise of philosophy in Greece, the individual as a comparable or greater truth than that of the cosmological truth asserted itself. Cosmological civilization means in any known aspect of human history above the level of the most primitive tribe, human beings assert a unified relationship between the visible world and the cosmos. “Cosmos” is the Greek word for world, but carries the sense of it being a known entity. Hence the word “cosmopolitan” means worldly, a pejorative, but more widely it means a citizen of the world. A cosmopolitan is a cultivated person. Christianity is a cosmopolitan religion; it flourishes in cities because it possesses a balance that equalizes the vicissitudes of history. Such is the work of civilization, that the harsh years may be balanced with years of abundance. We can say that the effort of civilization is to transcend time. The metaphor of a vine with roots that produces good fruit even in a bad year, or especially in a bad year, has this tension. In bad times a civilization accepts attrition and in prosperity it conserves its means. People such as soldiers recognize that the sacrifice of their lives for the greater good is worthwhile and in fact past achievements, a war won, a monument built, walls fortified, laws passed all champion the primacy of the cosmological order. To assert a personal truth against that of the cosmological truth is unconscionable, yet the discovery of personal freedom is what civilization made possible. How can there be fruit without the wall, the hedge, the tower, the hoeing and the pruning? My friend, who is God, built this vineyard. That is a cosmological truth. I came for my fruit and all I found was outcry and bloodshed. I will tear down the walls. That is a personal truth. Eric Voegelin in The New Science of Politics points out that the 5th C BC the assertion of personal freedom, a refinement of monotheism, could only be responded with a soteriological truth- the truth of personal god, a savior.
In Matthew Isaiah is fulfilled in an ecclesiology of the Kingdom of Heaven, a savior who locates his power in an utterly transcendent realm. In this particular periscope of Matthew 21 the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard culminates with the retort “they will surely respect my son.” To which the possession of the world without the control of the invisible god engenders the plot to kill the son to gain the inheritance. It is a revolt against the cosmos to which Jesus concludes with a question to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What will the owner of the vineyard do to the tenants when he comes?” Here is an unexpected inversion. It may be rightly interpreted that the tortuously just deaths of the rebellious tenants exacts a just result: the transfer of the birthright of Israel to the gentiles. However the particular love of God for Israel must not be diminished. Jesus asks their comment on the fulfillment of the prophetic edifice, the stone rejected by the builders that has been made the cornerstone. It is a stone inserted into the historical present. I can’t help think of Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi in this region. The story of a young couple betrothed to one another and immediately cast into the turbulent history of Lombardy of overlords and foreign rule. Their faith and wit tells the story of history from the bottom up. The aftermath of martyred prophets and oppressed peoples one of blood consumed as wine. Death, fear, the designs of the bravi vanquished by faithful love.
It is hard not to wish for a restoration of the consuming of the precious blood from the cup by the faithful during mass. The association of the cup with the guilt of transmitting the virus banalizes the sacrificial vine that produces the good fruit, where the chalice resides under the cross. It is as if the people themselves were the enemy. Do you solve the virus by removing all the people from the city? Why would the wicked tenants feel it was necessary to spill the blood of the son outside the vineyard? The fruit of the vine I desire most is filiation, to be one with him. To drink his blood is to be identified with him. A confirmation is what I seek to drink the cup he drank. A defiant freedom inebriates me.