Maskerade. Who would have thought, at the beginning of this year, that we would become accustomed to wearing a mask and dealing with other masked people? Perhaps it has occurred to you, as it has to me, that this masking may not be a temporary thing; that, as in places like Japan, wearing a mask in public spaces and crowded situations might become the polite thing to do. After all, it's perfectly possible, perhaps even likely, that this virus will remain with us, like influenza, and break out from time to time to cause local hotspots of infection. So masks might become a feature of everyday life; we shall just have to wait and see.
Seeing these masks gets me thinking about how masks affect everyday living. There is no doubt that for many, and especially those who like me have a hearing handicap, they can cause problems with clear communication. Not only that but it is more difficult to read emotions when the lower face is covered, we are to some extent disguised by the wearing of the mask; no surprise to aficionados of the old Saturday morning cowboy films when the baddie usually wore a mask covering the lower face when engaged in criminal enterprises. But those aficionados will also remember other mask-wearers like the Lone Ranger and Zorro who are not baddies but use the mask for the same reason – to disguise identity, the supreme example being Batman. Then there are the masks we wear for entertainment and a bit of fun; fancy dress masks, carnival masks, children at Halloween, clowns in the circus. Although clowns don't actually wear masks the heavy make-up serves the same purpose and yet there is a thing called coulrophobia which is a fear of clowns. So even when the intended purpose of the mask is a bit of fun it may have an opposite effect.
Masks have been used in the theatre for thousands of years. We might think of the Kabuki masks worn in the Japanese traditional Noh theatre. In ancient Greek theatre masks were used to express the character played by the actor. These masks were called personas and one actor might wear a number of these personas during a performance. You may or may not be aware that when we talk of the three persons of God we are missing out the 'a' in 'persons' – it really refers to the three personas of God; one actor wearing three masks: Creator, Redeemer and Spirit. Please don't write in to tell me that is too simplistic an expression of the Trinity, I'm well aware of that but it's not a bad working hypothesis for everyday use. So masks may be worn to assume another identity be it hero, villain, lover, clown and others you may think of.
If you think of the musical “Phantom of the Opera” you will be aware that the poster features the Phantom's mask. That mask makes the Phantom appear mysterious, even attractive but behind it there lies a terribly disfigured countenance. In the old silent move of the “Phantom of the Opera” Lon Chaney, the master of disguise, terrified audiences with the hideous appearance of his horrifyingly made-up face, I believe that there were those in the audience who fainted with fright. We've come a long way since then and in Lloyd-Webber's musical the Phantom make-up and distorted face no longer cause terror in these days of inclusivity: with the Paralympic Games, comedians like the Lost Voice Guy and personalities like Warwick Davies we are much more accepting of differences in appearance and ability. What we feel at the final denouement of the Phantom musical when the disguise is removed to reveal the true appearance beneath is not shock, horror or terror. Instead, I think, we are moved to compassion and pity. For all his wickedness the Phantom is a pathetic creature. His disguise not only has concealed his identity from others, it has, in fact, concealed his identity from himself. He has been living a lie; if you want to be a bit more theological, his life has not been authentic. It is like the mask in the film of the same name where the mask takes over the wearer. That false identity and inauthentic living act to alienate others from the Phantom. At the end he loses the things he loves – his music and, of course, Christine. He vanishes and as the curtain comes down all that is left of him is that iconic mask.
In “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” Oscar Wilde suggests that “each man kills the thing he loves”. That may go just a bit too far but then Wilde always tended to go a bit too far. It describes perfectly, though, the tragedy of the Phantom and his ultimate loss of what he loves. In fact his love is not authentic, it is manipulating and self-serving and this stems from his need to disguise himself. His problem is that he cannot love himself and thus he cannot truly love others. You will be reminded of the commandment to “love our neighbour as ourselves”. We usually tend to focus on the need to love our neighbour and forget that we must first learn to love ourselves. Too often we too put on the mask to disguise ourselves. I think we all do this to some extent, it is a way to ease our passage through life and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we don't forget the mask is there. The problems creep in when the mask becomes the reality, when we are no longer aware that we wear it, when it is a way of denying our true nature We see these masks in the 'isms'; racism, sexism, genderism, ageism and all the rest. To be racist we must wear the mask of our own racial superiority;I leave you to consider how the other masks work.. To wear the mask is to live in denial of who we are.
In the famous encounter St Paul had on that Damascus road the mask he had been wearing was ripped from him, no wonder he suffered for a number of days afterwards. That question “Why do you persecute me?” forced Saul (as he was then) to confront his anger and hate as he ran down and dealt with those he looked on as apostates and infidels. The mask of self-righteousness and religious zeal he wore prevented him from seeing the love that was the mainspring of the Jesus movement. Hiding behind that mask Saul could conceal from himself the lack of love within himself. It is something we see in extreme religious sects and raises the eternal question: how can acts of anger, hatred and violence be executed in the name of love? If God is anything that we are able to understand it is surely that God is love, not just love but Love; the author and source of all in life that is love. Love is such an essential of true religion and yet it can all too often be lacking. This truth is not confined to theologians, the writers of popular songs recognise it too. “Love is the greatest thing. The oldest yet the latest thing”: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, that's the only that's there's just too little of”: “All you need is love”. We all need that love and we need to show it to the world, but to possess it we first need to love ourselves and that means being prepared to free ourselves from the masks we wear and accept who we truly are so that we may be able to live authentic lives. That does not mean that unless we are perfect we cannot love who we are. It means realising that at this moment we are who we are; that we accept that without self-condemnation; that we understand that we are, and always will be, a work in progress. Like Saul on that Damascus road we need to have the pretence of our daily masks ripped away so that we can stand exposed before God to receive the love which is waiting to poured out upon us. To reveal our true self should not frighten us, God already knows who we are; but the same God also knows what we may become. Each day we take another first step towards that becoming. We may need to wear our Covid masks a while yet but when we stand before God it is past time when that other mask should be abandoned so that God's love can be poured out on us.
So that's it, then, a few ramblings on masks with what is basically an associated hypocrisy, and a world in need of love. Maybe best to leave the last word with the guy on the Damascus road summing up the core of the belief which that encounter engendered. “I am persuaded, you see, that neither death nor life, nor angelic nor demonic rulers, nor present nor future events, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Nicholas King translation).