This reflection is from Sam Candler, Dean of the Cathedral of St Philip in Atlanta.
Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday?
About twenty years ago, a musical comedy appeared off Broadway with the rather brilliant title, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” with words and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. For me, it is still one of the great titles of all time, because no one needs to have actually seen the musical in order to appreciate the phrase! “I love you, you’re perfect, now change.” Ha!
During this week, when Valentine’s Day collides with Ash Wednesday, it is worth reflecting more on that delightful phrase.
Yes, the phrase describes the way we love one another. Any one of us who has ever been in love knows that our love for another person develops in stages. The first stage, inevitably, is about ourselves. Yes, about ourselves. The first flush of love is usually something inside ourselves. We are aware of desire. Something rises up in us, some rush of hormones or adrenaline; and we call it love.
The next stage, often immediately following the first, is about the object of our desire. “Wow,” we say, “You are perfect. You are the very ideal of perfection. Not a blemish on you!” Now, if we are on the receiving end of love, we really like that stage. Someone is calling us “perfect.” That feels pretty good! Someone has actually been able to look beyond our faults and been able to call us “perfect.” We tend to start believing that projection.
Then. Then … the third stage. First stage: I love you. Second stage: you’re perfect. But third stage: now change. Any of us who has ever been in love knows what this stage means, too. Yes, I love you. Yes, you are wonderful. But, the way you do such and such really has begun to bug me. In fact, it has always bugged me. Can’t you change that habit? And what about that other boring thing you do…? And that disgusting thing…? Do you realize you are always…? Grow up! Change! I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.
Well, on Ash Wednesday, and during Lent, God might be saying a similar thing to us. But God would say, “I love you, you are being perfected, now change.” For, when God calls us to be perfect, God is really calling us to “be perfected.” With God, we are on our way somewhere, on a journey. God has an “end” for us. The Greeks called it a “telos.” We are meant to be growing toward the goal of union with God.
But that journey requires change! There is no way to grow, and no way to grow in love, without changing. And there is certainly no way to grow towards God without changing.
Some of that change is inevitable. The great Anglican and Roman Catholic, John Henry Cardinal Newman, declared that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” I extend his truth even further: the only things that are not changing are dead!
Yes, a lot of change is inevitable; and so the Church, in her wisdom, offers us grace during these inevitable and momentous changes in life: birth (baptism), illness (anointing and prayer), marriage (marriage!), and death (funerals). Note well these pastoral services of the Church! They are designed to touch these inevitable changes of life with God’s grace. The Church is here to touch one another with grace during the changes of life. The Church exists to show us how to change gracefully.
For those interested, the Church further invites us to live through change in the more routine liturgical services of the church. Our weekly Eucharist invites us to change. Our daily confession of sin invites us to change. Those who practice the rhythms and routines of Church life are practicing going through change gracefully.
And, you know what? Our valentines invite us to change, too. That is to say: our lovers invite us to change. “I love you, you’re perfect, now change.” And God is the one who loves us most. If you missed Valentine’s Day, there is still time. If you missed Ash Wednesday, there is still time. There is still time to change, towards love. To live is to change, and to love is to change – daily, gracefully—towards the glory of God.