In moving to the precise term “facial covering,” instead of “mask,” it becomes clearer that the effect is to blot out the human face and ultimately blot out God from our sight.

On a recent visit to Charleston, South Carolina, I had an experience that led to a disturbing realization. Since then, I have been reflecting on the deeper consequences, and perhaps nefarious motives, of mask-mandates.

The Historic City Market of Charleston required patrons to wear a mask just like every public place in America at this point. So I put on a disposable mask as I entered the collection of shops. As I was passing by a store, a female shop attendant, who also was wearing a mask, greeted me in a charming southern accent. In response, I smiled at her and returned her greeting. But I realized that she could not see me smiling and that I could not see her smiling. In that instant, I said to myself, “Dang, they have stolen our faces!”

The issue of mask mandates has been gobbled up by our polarized nation. There are fierce arguments about the medical effectiveness or need for masks. Some people go blindly insane when they see others not wearing a mask in public. On the other side, many people sense that masks are just one more thing that the ruling elites are imposing on the unquestioning masses. The battle-lines over masks have drawn up largely according to political lines now. However, most of the controversy does not really address the true meaning of what is happening. Whatever the motives are, the effects of mask-mandates transcend health and safety.

It seems that official parlance has now settled on the term “facial covering.” This subtle shift and coordinated resolution regarding a more precise term is telling. It reveals the deeper effects and perhaps the motives of the mandates themselves. There is a significant distinction between masks and facial coverings. Historically, masks have been associated with playing a role, like in the theatre. In fact, the Latin word persona comes from the Greek word prosopon, which originates from the dramatic arts. From this understanding, wearing a mask is more like putting on the face of another or portraying someone else.[1]  In moving to the precise term “facial covering,” instead of “mask,” it becomes clearer that the effect is to blot out the human face and ultimately blot out God from our sight.

In continuing to reflect upon my realization in Charleston, the C.S. Lewis book, Till We Have Faces, came to mind. I have to admit that even after reading the work twice at different times in my life, I still don’t really understand it. However, among the multiple levels at work in the book, Lewis is undeniably trying to connect the discovery of self through the gods to discovering the One True God ultimately. The intersection point lies in the title. Toward the end of the book, Orual says, “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Lewis tries to draw this connection through a retelling of a pagan myth. The connection between God and man becomes fully concrete in the Incarnation. God becomes man and bears a human face.

Icons are commonly known as “windows to Heaven,” but what do they usually feature? The majority of icons feature the face of Christ or one of the saints. Usually it is exclusively the face. The theology behind iconography further illustrates the connection between the human face and the face of God.

David Clayton, an artist and iconographer, explains that “the purpose of icons is to give us a glimpse of how things will seem when we are in heaven.” For the iconographer, the account of the Transfiguration provides the foundation of the spiritual theology behind his art. During the Transfiguration, the Evangelists are specific in mentioning the faces of Christ and the Apostles. “Christ is described in Luke’s gospel: ‘the fashion of his face was altered, and his garments became white and dazzling’; Matthew says that his face was ‘shining like the sun, and his garments became white as snow’; Peter described a ‘splendour that dazzles human eyes’.”[2]

All the stylistic elements that the iconographer uses, to portray the “transfigured face” is meant to “create a dynamic process that first pulls the viewer into the icon and then sends the attention beyond the icon itself to heaven. The full-faced gaze of the saint arrests our attention, pulls us in and holds us on itself.” [3]The spirituality of the iconographer is wholly directed to what St. John describes as heaven in the book of the Apocalypse when he says that the saints “will see the Lord face to face.” (cf. Rev. 22:4)[4] Face to face is the only way to describe man’s intended finality. The human face signifies human dignity.

The most profound reason for the importance of the human face is that God has a human face. About three decades ago, Christoph Schonborn, OP, produced a scholarly work titled God’s Human Face, The Christ Icon. It has been published in several languages. This work surveys the Fathers of the Church and explores the Trinitarian and Christological implications of God’s human face. The apex of Schonborn’s research centers on St. Paul’s passage in Second Corinthians: “For it is God who said,’Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) Among other things, St. Paul is saying that it is the human face of Christ that is the glory of God and the light shining out of the darkness. More specifically though, St. Paul is also saying understanding in our hearts is linked to the gaze upon the face of Christ. This is an intuition that has inspired iconographers throughout history.

Schonborn further explicates St. Paul’s passage by highlighting St. Cyril of Alexandria.

If the Word identifies with the flesh and entirely appropriates it, then this flesh must, in a certain sense, participate in the innermost essence of the Son, in his hypostasis. This also changes the conception of the image. Cyril at one time comments on “the Day of your countenance” (Ps 21:9) in these words: “Rightly can we understand the ‘time of the Father’s countenance’ as a time of the Incarnation, for the Son, after all, is the face [prosepon] and the image of the Father.’[5]

Cyril’s contention here goes in two directions starting from Christ. In the Incarnation, when the Son becomes flesh, He appropriates our flesh. He makes possible the divination of our flesh through the cooperation with grace. Christ makes it possible for the human face to reflect God’s face. Christ elevates the human face and gives it its dignity. At the same time, the face of the Word made flesh is truly the face of God. What we see day to day in the human face bears Divinity.[6]

There is a deep theological foundation for the importance of the human face. My unsettling experience with the shopkeeper in Charleston was really about the inability to connect through a smile. The human smile has profound significance for human relations. Han Urs von Balthasar reflects upon the mother and a newborn child in Unless You Become Like This Child. “Here is where the miracle occurs that one day the child will recognize in his mother’s face her protective love and will reciprocate this love with a first smile… This understanding opens up in the child the dormant bud of self-awareness.”[7] The smile from a child is the first small act of love. It is only brought about by the smile from the mother. The human smile is the basic symbol of man’s capacity to love. It is also the basic vehicle for human relations.

As our various societal crises move forward, Joe Biden says that he would mandate facial coverings nationally. This could be political posturing from a desperate candidate. Nevertheless, the mask movement seems to be gaining steam even as the spread of COVID is declining. I tend to think something far more significant is at stake. Yes, I think masks are being used to stoke fear and cultivate compliance. However, on a basic and fundamental level, facial coverings are stripping us of our humanity and blotting out the face of God from our sight.

You might think that the governing elites cannot possibly be thinking at this kind of theological level. Maybe not, but I wouldn’t be so sure. There are many instances where the elites have been caught showing what they really believe. Facial coverings are required for the unquestioning masses, but not for the governing elite.

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[1] Joseph Ratzinger, “Concerning the notion of person in Theology,” Communio, vol 17 (Fall 1990) p. 441-442.

[2] David Clayton, “How the form of Byzantine icons relates to the Christian worldview,” The turn to aesthetics: An interdisciplinary exchange of ideas in applied and philosophical aesthetics, Liverpool Hope University Press, 2008, p. 86.

[3] Ibid, p. 90; p. 85.

[4] Ibid, p. 85.

[5] Christoph Schonborn, OP, God’s Human Face, The Christ Icon, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1994, p. 83.

[6] Ibid, p. 83.

[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1991, p 17.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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