If you are old enough, you remember an old television serial where each episode had the hero riding into town, saving the day on his white horse and then riding off into the distance with that inimitable line, “Hi-Oh Silver, awaaaaay!” And the people were left saying to one another, “Who was that masked man”? Zorro’s identity remained a mystery behind the mask (as did Batman’s and other fictional characters as well of course).
And in recent days, as I wore a bandana mask into my bank, it took great restraint (and honestly, a desire not to be handcuffed and locked up!) not to say to the teller, “Stick ‘em up!”
Prior to this past spring, masks communicated at least these two things we see from these examples: someone who seeks to be a mystery-person by concealing their face, and someone who presents a clear threat to our safety and well being. So much of who we are and how we communicate takes place in that rather small 4- or 5-inch space between the bridge of our nose and the bottom of our chin.
Have you noticed how your experience in the grocery store has changed? “Strangers” who we might normally greet with a smile are no longer met with a greeting . . . much less a smile (at least as far as I can tell). Now I readily admit that some people actually possess a gift for smiling with their eyes, but it is a rare gift indeed. Most of us desperately need those other 4-5 inches to communicate, identify, and relate appropriately to one another.
Just as I reminded students last spring that seeing each other on zoom was not the same as being together with one another, so now, I remind students this fall that masks severely inhibit our fully relating to one another. It shows us one of the mysteries of God creating us imago Dei, that is “in His image.”
In Old Testament Survey recently, 7th grade students have been learning about our having been created imago Dei and what that means. We reflect God’s image not only by thinking, communicating, creating, and exercising dominion over creation; we also reflect God’s image in our very being, including to a huge extent how we express ourselves through body language, facial expressions as simple as a smile.
It may be important to note that in ancient Greek, the word we use for “face” became synonymous with “person.” Thus, for example in the thespian world, people can take on a new persona via a mask or make up. They can turn into someone else since their face is now changed and unfamiliar. In this way, a mask can actually free someone to assume a different personality, to act in a different manner.
I remember in my Young Life days, a common part of a week at camp was an evening when everyone would dress up for some new and different theme like a circus. This was a careful strategy to allow young people to “get out of themselves,” to find some freedom to be someone else for an evening, to break away from their “normal” self and try something new. The idea was that many kids were hearing something outrageous (the Good News of Jesus) for the first time, and maybe this could be the beginning of a new self for them.
Paul speaks a lot about “putting off the old” and “putting on the new” when we become new creations in Christ. In his letters to the Corinthian church, he reminds people of the time when Moses wore a veil over his face to keep people from seeing the refulgent glory reflecting from his face having been in God’s presence. But Paul then takes it a step further saying that Moses kept this mask on longer since that glory was fading and perhaps Moses didn’t want the people of Israel to see him in his old self. Then Paul makes the application to us all saying, “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:16-18).
Do you see it? The goal as followers of Jesus is an authentic transparency. We long to see the Lord and one another without the interference of masks. We long to “take off” the false and reveal the true self.
But that can be a most intimidating prospect, can’t it? We live in these Shadow Lands (as Lewis called this life) where masks are too often the way we live – now more than ever. But we still look forward to that time Paul speaks of when he says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
So, in the meantime, we wear masks. We even try to accessorize our masks with logos or team symbols, to have some fun while we must cover up this crucial aspect of ourselves. But how I long, as I believe we all do, for the time when we can lose the mask, see one another more fully, smile with abandon, and even to embrace once more.
May God give us grace, perseverance, and much patience with one another and with our unknown neighbors as we wait for that time. And may God teach us just a bit about how important it will be to live unmasked with one another. I know we won’t take that blessing for granted in the future.
Written for The Geneva Courier, published 10/01/2020