18 March 2014

Art for Lent (14): ‘I AM the Vine’
… a Chinese scroll (John 15: 5)

‘I am the vine …’ a Chinese scroll hanging above my desk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I have chosen for my work of Art for Lent this morning a Chinese scroll that was given to me a few years ago by a Chinese student, and that is hanging beside my desk in my study. The student was in Dublin on a scholarship from the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, and on the back of this scroll he has written: “John 15: 5.”

These words in rich, traditional Chinese calligraphy, say:

ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ἄμπελος, ὑμεῖς τὰ κλήματα. ὁ μένων ἐν ἐμοὶ κἀγὼ ἐν αὐτῷ οὗτος φέρεικαρπὸν πολύν, ὅτι χωρὶς ἐμοῦ οὐ δύνασθε ποιεῖν οὐδέν.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

我 是 葡 萄 樹 , 你 們 是 枝 子 。 常 在 我 裡 面 的 , 我 也 常 在 他 裡 面 , 這 人 就 多 結 果 子 ; 因 為 離 了 我 , 你 們 就 不 能 做 甚 麼 。

My Chinese Bible open at the beginning of John 15 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

On a shelf beside the scroll is the Chinese Bible I bought in the Amity shop beside Holy Trinity Cathedral, the old Anglican cathedral in Shanghai.

This verse comes from the chapter that opens with the last of the seven “I AM” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel “I am the true vine …” (Jon 14: 1), words that are spoken by Christ during his Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper. And so I have chosen this scroll as my work of Art or Lent for contemplation this morning [18 March 2014].

The use of the phrase “I AM” (ἐγώ εἰμι, ego eimi) is distinctive to the Fourth Gospel. It is significant within Jewish theology, for it is the name by which the God of the Exodus reveals himself to Moses as he commissions Moses to set the Exodus events in motion (see Exodus 36).

Ego eimi (ἐγώ εἰμί), “I AM,” or “I exist,” is the first person singular present tense of the verb “to be” in ancient Greek, and its use of this phrase in some parts of Saint John’s Gospel of John is rich with theological significance.

When used as a copula, with a predicate, for example “I am Patrick,” then the usage is equivalent to English. When used alone, without a predicate, as in “I am,” “he is,” “they are,” then the usage typically means “I exist” and so on.

In Saint John’s Gospel, Christ says “I am” (eimi) 45 times, including those occasions when other people quote Christ’s words. On 24 occasions, these are emphatic, explicitly including the pronoun “I” (ego eimi), which is not necessary in Greek grammar. These emphatic references can be sub-divided into “Absolute” or “Predicate” statements.

Ego eimi is used with a nominative predicate seven times in the Gospel:

● I am the bread of life (John 6: 35).

● I am the light of the world (John 8:12).

● I am the gate for the sheep (John 10: 7).

● I am the good shepherd (John 10: 11).

● I am the resurrection and the life (John 11: 25).

● I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14: 6).

● I am the true vine (John 15: 1).

The number of “I AM” sayings is a literary device, for the number seven was regarded as the perfect number, and so indicates that Christ is the perfect revelation. In a similar way, there are also “seven signs” in this Gospel.

Most of the images in the “I AM” sayings have their roots in the Hebrew Bible, where they are used primarily for God:

Tread of life or bread from heaven: see Exodus 16; Numbers 11: 6-9; Psalm 78: 24; Isaiah 55: 1-3; Nehemiah 9: 15; II Maccabees 2: 5-8.

The light of the world: see Exodus 13: 21-22; Isaiah 42: 6-7; Psalm 97:4.

The good shepherd: see Ezekiel 34: 1-41; Genesis 48: 15; Genesis 49: 24; Psalm 23: 1-4; Psalm 80: 1; Psalm 100: 3-4; Micah 7: 14.

The resurrection and the life: see Daniel 12: 2; Psalm 56: 13; II Maccabees 7: 1-38.

The way: see Exodus 33: 13; Psalm 25: 4; Psalm 27: 11; Psalm 86: 11; Psalm 119:59; Isaiah 40:3; 62:10.

The truth: see I Kings 17: 4; Psalm 25: 5; Psalm 43: 3; Psalm 86: 11; Psalm 119: 160; Isaiah 45: 19.

The vine: see Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 9-17; Jeremiah 2: 21; Ezekiel 17: 5-10.

Poetically, the bread and the vine open and close these seven “I AM” sayings.

In the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in some of the Eucharistic texts used in the Church of England, and in other liturgical traditions, there is an adaptation of traditional Jewish table-blessings, drawn in turn from the Bible, that is said at the Taking of the Bread and Wine:

Priest: Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation:
through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
which earth has given and human hands have made (Ecclesiastes 3: 13-14).
It will become for us the bread of life (John 6: 35).

All: Blessed be God forever (Psalm 68: 36).

Priest: Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation:
through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink (Luke 22: 17-18).

All: Blessed be God forever (Psalm 68: 36).

[See also Common Worship (Church of England), p. 291.]

Our openness to Christ present in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist is at the beginning and the end of our acceptance of who Christ is for us, particularly as Lent invites us towards its climax.

Late autumn grapes clinging in bunches to the vines last November at the Hedgehog on the northern edge of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tomorrow: ‘Saint Joseph and the Christ Child’ by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco).

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