On Masking One’s Face

As the Covid pandemic drags on into its third wearying year, the debate regarding the legitimacy of certain government restrictions grows ever more shrill, and people ever more divided.  For Christians for whom their primary allegiance is to Christ—and therefore to each other—this division is problematic.  We exclude heretics from our Eucharistic fellowship and regard them as religiously “Other” because of their fundamentally incompatible understanding of Christ.  But should differences regarding our responses to government restrictions be regarded as having a like importance?

Perhaps the most obvious difference separating persons who disagree about those responses is the wearing or non-wearing of medical masks in public.  Medical people admit (though perhaps not often publicly) that wearing cloth masks accomplishes little to prevent contracting Covid, and not much more to prevent its spread unless one wears a properly fitting N95 surgical mask.  That is a medical and political question which will not be examined here (either in the blog itself or—please note— in the comments section).  Here I would like to examine the theological issue about the significance of masking one’s face.

Before Covid was “a thing” and came to the world’s attention, I wrote about the significance of masking one’s face—not by the wearing of a medical mask, but by the wearing of a niqab, a long woman’s vestment that covered the entirety of a woman’s body including all of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed and peeking through a narrow slit.  (That blog post can be found here.)

Part of that blog post was based on the notion that a person’s face represented not just another part of their physical anatomy (like their hand or their leg), but their whole person.  In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “face” is also the word for “presence” (Hebrew panim; Greek πρόσωπον/ prosopon), so that to reveal one’s face was to reveal one’s presence.  In the same way, to hide one’s face was to withdraw from a person and refuse the mutuality that characterizes all authentic relationships.  If I can see your face but you can’t see mine, I have a kind of advantage over you.  Mutuality suffers, for I refuse to make myself as present to you and you are making yourself present and vulnerable to me. That, I suggested, was part of the problem with Muslim women wearing the niqab.

The exposed face therefore is an essential part of a genuine and mutual relationship. That is why Moses, who veiled his face while among his fellow Israelites after his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, removed the veil when he went to speak with God (Exodus 34).  That is also why St. Paul, building upon this insight, wrote that Christians stand before God with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:12-18).  Authentic mutuality demands that we expose our faces to each other as a part of our total relationship.

Obviously though, there are times when masking the face is required.  Soldiers in the First World War wore masks which hid the face and protected them from poison gas (“gas masks”), and doctors and nurses wear surgical masks while doing surgery to protect those upon whom they are operating from infection.  This latter practice also suggests that surgical masks should be worn when visiting people who are vulnerable to infection, such as those who are severely immuno-suppressed or who are more medically vulnerable. For example, I remember wearing a hospital gown, a mask, and rubber gloves when baptizing a baby in neo-natal intensive care once; it was required and seemed the sensible thing to do.

Here I would like to further suggest that there are all kinds of masks which we wear which similarly restrict authentic human relationships—masks that are invisible to the human eye, but that are every bit as damaging to mutuality as the wearing a niqab.  We wear these invisible masks when we hide behind the anonymity that certain forms of social media provide, or when he loudly write off certain people, refusing to see their true faces because of their political views. This is being done by people of both sides of our current debate about the legitimacy of Covid restrictions.

We all have seen how certain people when using such social media allow themselves a freedom to respond to people that they would never allow themselves when talking to them over coffee or at the office water cooler.  This freedom often leads to a kind of Facebook road rage in which all civility and fairness are swept away.  This is very easy to do, and offers an emotional self-righteous rush, making them feel like Superman striking a blow for truth, justice, and the American Way.

This is problematic.  One may of course hold a firm and fervent opinion, but while expressing it, we should first remove our invisible mask and be present and vulnerable to the other person, looking at their (spiritually) naked faces as well.  We must stand before our neighbour with spiritually unveiled face and not hide behind a mask of self-righteousness or anger that makes mutuality impossible.

This pandemic with its restrictions will eventually pass.  The question is: How will we face our neighbours after it is all over?

3 comments:

  1. Truth Justice and the American Way. This is where the criticism goes astray. National posturing. U K sites become jingoistic to the same degree. New Zealanders gather to protest that masking violates their New Zealand /Maori freedom. So rational discussions on so many issues are twisted to national feeling and masking is only the one which grabs attention at the moment. National breast thumping is a growing phenomenon everywhere
    and so when talking to people of other national backgrounds we do need to wear the mask of courtesy. The “stiff upper lip” mask of the British is worth imitating . When boiling over with rage , to use icily polite formulas to express the feeling is the safest way. If our priest, as an example has non religious opinions on something, the people listening should wear polite expressions and not hurl semi insults about his nationality back during the sermon.
    After all God will judge , we don’t need to. We should just pull ourselves together and behave

  2. Thank you for this excellent article, Father. I am reminded of the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who argued that the face of the other is fundamental and primary to being, and that the face of the other creates responsibilities to the other from the beginning. True negation of someone is not murder (because even murder requires us to acknowledge the other) but concealing one’s face from them.

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