Faces are the most distinctive things about us.
One radio show asked its listeners to sum up the Christian message in a sentence.
The best result was a fresh take on the old Monkees’s song, made famous again for a new generation in the film Shrek: “Then I saw his face: now I’m a believer!”
A friend asked me what I thought of masks being worn in church. My reply?
“I have been a pastor for nearly 40 years, and I can tell you that people have been wearing masks since the first pair hid in Eden!”
Most people have not seen this as a problem because these masks are invisible.
Of course, my friend was actually asking what I thought of the government regulations about wearing masks in church as a measure to restrict the spread of Covid-19. What do we lose when we interact with people wearing masks?
I conducted a funeral last week with these restrictions in place. We were limited to 30 mourners, who were sitting in socially distanced bubbles. Everyone was wearing a mask, except me. I was standing at the lectern behind a perspex drum shield.
I was surprised to find how quickly I got used to interacting with people who had half of their face covered. They saw my face, could observe my facial expressions, and watch my mouth move as I spoke. All of these things are invaluable for the preacher who wants to communicate the whole message with their whole body and the full contours of their personality.
I guess that over a long period of time there would be a loss of instant feedback from the full range of facial expression of an unmasked face. Maybe I need to pay more attention to the expressiveness of people’s eyes.
It made me think the ancient Aaronic Blessing from Numbers 6:24–26, that I often use to end a service. It only has fifteen words in Hebrew. Three for the Lord, and twelve for each of the tribes of Israel. The blessing communicates all of God, to all of the people:
‘“‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.’”
I love the three-fold movement of the blessing, and the vivid image of the Lord’s face shining and turning towards us to experience his industrial strength care, abundant grace and enduring peace. All of this focussed on the image of an attentive face turned toward us. This image shows us the deep love of God that pays attention to us in the whole range of our experiences.
This reminded me of the strange experience of Jacob when he was waiting to meet up with his brother, Esau. They had parted under a dark cloud and had not met for many years. The night before their meeting Jacob wrestles a mysterious figure, who leaves him with two things to remember forever. Jacob called the place Peniel, to recall that he had seen the face of God. He also left that contest at Peniel with a permanent limp.
The day for the reunion with his brother finally arrives. Jacob is anxious but the meeting goes remarkably well. Instead of the frosty reception he had expected he received instead a warm welcome. Do you know what he said about it?
“If I have found favour in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favourably” (Genesis 33:10).
Uncovered face to uncovered face allows so much to be communicated with feeling, expression and words. The freshly vulnerable Jacob limps his way to encounter with the brother he had spent a lifetime fearing.
I guess that Jacob’s experience might have been a little different if they were both wearing masks.