It is both Valentine’s Day, as everyone knows, and the Feast of the Transfiguration, because Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, and that is how the church calendar works. I was wandering around the readings last night, feeling especially bad for Elijah in all his disappointments, when, distracted for a moment by Facebook, I came across this gem that I cannot pretend I didn’t read to the very end.
A long while ago (was it last year or something?) I stumbled across that new and clever idea, “self-marriage,” which is where, if you can’t get anyone to love you, you order up from a company a box of stuff that helps you pull off a sort of a ceremony whereby you “marry” yourself. After all, it’s not fair for everyone else to have nice presents and a party and you never get to, because you always seem to be alone. Also, loving yourself is the greatest love of all.
Ms. Hollis seems to be headed in that direction. She is no longer with the person she married a decade and a half ago, but that’s no reason to be sad, to mourn or grieve over the mountain of failures that eventually make people give up on each other and go off to a new life as if nothing had happened. As you know, since we are practically back in the intellectual dark ages now, love is entirely a matter of chance and superstition. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the mind or the will, and no amount of work you can do will save any relationship you have—except the one where you chiefly love yourself.
Therefore, Ms. Hollis can take that clever idea of the “love languages” for which there was some kind of Christian book sometime in the last few decades, and instead of using it as a way to better love another person, she will use it to love herself. She will do an “act of service” for herself by cleaning out her closet.
In pursuit of this new quest, she dug around a little about the life of St. Valentine and discovered that he once sent himself a love letter from prison, which proves that celebrating yourself is a fabulous idea, because of history. Just as an aside, I had never heard that legend and so did do a google search and found everything about St. Valentine roundly debunked except the beheading part. This year everyone seems to think that Chaucer was the inventor of Valentine’s Day, along with one or two chocolate companies.
Ms. Hollis’ third recommendation, to “BE love” I found a hint more useful. Yes, if you are alone, or in a bad way, it is an eminently suitable idea to reach out to someone else and to—and I’ll just add this word because I feel like trolling—“selflessly” spend yourself out of love for whoever it is.
For that is what our Lord did, not only on the Feast of the Transfiguration, but on every other day of the time that he walked on this earth. He did not count equality with the Father, to whom he is bound in eternal and perfect love, as something to be grasped, but poured himself out, even unto death on the cross, out of love, so that you might be reconciled to the Father and brought into eternal life. So anyway, the dictum, “Don’t forget to love yourself,” is really antithetical to true love, especially true Christian love, because love requires an object, it requires letting go of oneself and choosing to put someone else first. Two people, in fact, are required for the kind of love that will produce the ultimate happiness that Ms. Hollis and the whole world longs so much to enjoy.
I am excessively bemused by the idea that the self as an object of love will be a satisfying pursuit. Bemused because the gospels themselves handle this very question so deftly, with so much humor and revelatory wit. When Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John—he hauls them up the mountain, and for an instant they are dazzled, getting to see what he is like all the time, only mostly veiled by the meekness of his persistent journey to the cross—Peter, loving his Lord for but an instant, but also so deeply committed to himself and his own priorities and sense of what makes life worth living, explains to Jesus that they should make some tents, tabernacles if you will, so that they can all stay comfortably at the top of the mountain surrounded by all this glory. But as he is speaking Moses and Elijah are already making their way back to that greater country and Peter is left with Jesus, and Jesus only, as usual.
The trouble is that we want Jesus to give us all of his glory and none of himself. We want to rise again without having first to die. We want love without the hassle of the other person breaking in and unsettling not only our priorities and plans, but the very knowledge that we have of ourselves.
Because when you endure with another person for many years—but most especially if that other person is Jesus—you discover every day how wrong you are, how bad, how small-minded, how selfish, how vain…I could go on but I won’t. Loving another person over the long haul means always having to say you’re sorry, means dying to your own hopes and dreams so that the other person can go first. When two people who love each other do this, the love they display is both elegant and restful. They are always promoting the other, exclaiming over the other, delighted with the other. When two people caught together don’t do it well, and I am sure you have run across this in one way or another, all you see is pain and heartbreak. You can’t, after all, take something from the other person, you can only freely give yourself. When you do try to take something that isn’t freely given, the whole world can see the paltry ugliness of your grasping, the inverse of the glory of Christ at the cross.
The lovely thing about Jesus, though, is that when you failed not only to love yourself, and other people, and him, yet he came and loved you. He went into the very darkness of all the cupboards of your heart and pulled you out into his light and started rearranging your insides so that you wouldn’t be so awful and so small and so dingy. He began to help you to die—to yourself—so that you might live for him. Indeed, he joined you to his body so that on the last day, when he returns in the glory we so long to behold, you will be caught up in that great Marriage Feast of the Lamb, the one that goes on forever. So what if every other person on earth has disappointed you, or if you are alone and sad. In that great Tent there are many rooms, if it were not so would he have told you that he goes to prepare a place for you? But he did. And though you cannot now see him, yet you are this moment joined to him in heaven by the power of his own blood, his own life.
What better day to go to church! Do it for yourself, but mostly do it for Jesus.