Happy Father’s Day!
It is with joy and some cautious trepidation that we begin to hold limited in-person worship this week along with maintaining our online presence. I am very mindful, at this time, of folks who do not feel comfortable coming back to worship. I’ve said it and others have said it: the Church exists well beyond the walls of a building. It is essential to the task of being the Church to make sure that we are all taken care of and have ways that we can connect to God and each other, even while some of us will need to stay at home for a while longer.
For those who are planning to come to church this summer, things are going to look different. Beth, Lucas, and Paige Johnson made a great video that illustrates some of those changes. If you are signed up to attend this Sunday, the video will give you an idea of what to expect. I want to express my gratitude to the Johnsons for their work.
The necessity of wearing a mask is one big change that extends far beyond just church gatherings. Almost overnight masks have become ubiquitous in American society. Unlike many other people in the world, Americans seemed to have an aversion to masks, and it is interesting to wonder why. I have the (bad?) habit of making everything about theology. So, I have been thinking about a theology of masks. Before the pandemic, in line with much of American culture, I might have spoken of masks negatively. I might write how we all wear metaphorical masks which hide our true selves. We “put on” personas and outward attitudes and behaviors as if they were masks, to protect ourselves from shame, disappointment, or the vulnerability to pain that comes with being truly known. And it’s still true that a mask can be a salient metaphor, but suddenly they’ve become much more. Masks have become a daily reality.
From the beginning of this crisis until now, public health officials—and behind them, the scientists who are studying the virus—have done a complete 180 degree pivot on the importance of masks as one of the keys to beating, or least surviving, this pandemic. It is important to realize that when it comes to science and health, humans are no less fallible than in other pursuits. Of course, besides fallibility, one of the most distinctive aspects of humanity is our ability to quickly adapt based on new information. So, we adapt, and we wear masks because the best information we have suggests they are vital. From a theological point of view, the most significant piece of data concerning how masks help reduce the spread of coronavirus is this: you wearing a mask does not primarily protect you, it protects others around you. Your mask’s job is to prevent you from accidently spreading the virus unawares. Ironically then, instead of hiding our true selves, the mask exposes something about our true selves. We are intricately, inextricably, always and forever dependent upon each other. In the final analysis, that’s probably why we Americans don’t like them on a symbolic or aesthetic level. We are constantly tempted by delusions of individual independence. Masks are symbols of our inability to care for ourselves; signs of our fragility and mortality. They are a constant reminder that my health—to some degree, my very life—depends upon your responsibility and your choices, and vice versa. We cannot survive or thrive without each other’s care and concern. The famous South African archbishop, Desmond Tutu, expresses this very well when he writes and speaks about the traditional Southern African concept of “Ubuntu.” In Tutu’s translation, Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” Or, a person’s humanity is “bound up in the humanity of others.” (See Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness). My humanity is intimately tied to yours. We flourish together, or we die alone.
This is all by design. This is how God made us in God’s image. The Trinity is an attempt to express the dynamic inner relationship of God’s persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Three are not separate, but One God. Their distinct persons are forever bound in a cosmic movement of unifying love. God is always pouring God’s self out in love and God is always gathering that love back again to God. By analogy, human inter-relationship is a big part of what it means to be created in the image of a Triune God. Our inter-dependence upon each other is the foundation of human delight, love, and the giving and receiving of gifts. All of this is meant to calibrate us and orient us toward experiencing God’s love and God’s life. Human relation, when it is redeemed and restored to its fullness, is a constant invitation to be in relationship with God. So, we wear masks not as a concession to authority (be it the governor’s or the bishop’s), nor as an outward expression of our own fear or weakness. We wear masks as a badge of our love and care for each other, and our dependence upon each other’s love. Masks are a gift to each other. Like every gift, given worthily, they can be a token of our ability to participate in the giving, loving life of God. Viewed in this sacramental way, masks are a perfectly natural thing to wear in our gatherings of worship.