Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Zec 12:10-11; 13:1; Ps 63:2,3-4,5-6,8-9; Gal 3:26-29, Lk 9:18-24
Earlier this week, I received an unexpected phone call in my office. It was from a gentlemen who, for much of the last year, had been attending Catholic services at the local detention center where I volunteer. (I’ll call him Eric, though that is not his name.) Eric wanted to share the good news of his recent release and some of the challenges as well. He and I had many conversations while he was on the inside. We talked about all sorts of topics, but the topic that came up the most – by far – was his six-year-old daughter. It was unmistakable how much he cared for her and how profound his desire was to be on the outside and back in her life.
Month after month, Eric was grieving what his incarceration was doing to his daughter. So when I heard his voice on the phone – out of jail – I got the opportunity to hear a continued grief accompanied by a new joy. Not only was Eric able to be with his little girl again, but the next day he would be there for “Bring your Dad to School” Day. The mix of hope and regret in his voice reminded me of Sunday’s First Reading from Zechariah in which grief and joy are woven closely together. The prophet proclaims that the Lord will pour out “a spirit of grace and petition” and there will be “a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.” And “on that day the mourning in Jerusalem shall be . . . great.”
It is natural to think of grief and mourning as things that are replaced by joy and grace. Often we think that hope begins when grief is no more. And yet, Zecharaiah seems to suggest that grieving is itself good news. Rather than being at odds with one another, grief and grace co-exist. The “spirit of grace and petition” is the spirit of mourning. Grief in this passage from Zecharaiah does not distance the people from God but rather opens them up to experience that relationship more fully. Their grief helps to orient their supplication and desire toward the Lord.
For Eric, there is grief that remains . . . because of the time lost with his little girl, because of the struggles she has had to endure to make sense of his absence. It is wrong to say that his sorrow has simply disappeared and been replaced. There is much joy and hopefulness in being reunited with his daughter, and it is inseparable from the continued grief. Eric’s grief is indeed good news if it is the sort of grief described by Zechariah. Eric’s mourning is part of the spirit of grace and petition. It does not close him off from God but is enabling him to experience God all the more. It orients him in his daily struggles about what to seek and desire most.
This continued grief for Eric is ultimately a virtue.
A colleague of mine, Mark Wilson, has written wonderfully on the virtue of moral grief. (See his essay “Moral Grief and Reflective Virtue” in Virtue and the Moral Life: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives.) He has reflected on moral grief in the particular context of moral injury and the wounds of war, but the virtue applies broadly of course. Drawing from Augustine and Aquinas, Wilson demonstrates the rightful place of grief in the good life. This is not to say all grief is virtuous, but moral grief is a praiseworthy orientation of the will and a recognition of the inevitable tragedy in which we participate. Wilson explains the virtue of moral grief is opposed to both the vices of self-destruction and self-alienation; it is “the mean between unchecked self-loathing and unthinking apathy.” As a reflective virtue, moral grief is a proper part of one’s examination of conscience.
This moral grief is the grief of Zechariah’s great day of mourning in which the Lord pours out a spirit of grace and petition. This is the good news of a grief anchored in self-understanding that makes us more available to God and life-giving desires. This is a grief that coexists with grace. And I hope this is Eric’s continued grief which makes being in his daughter’s life a continued joy.