One of the most iconic and disturbing images of this pandemic surely has to be the face mask, worn by frontline key workers and solitary shoppers alike. Masks to protect ourselves and others.
Long before COVID19 we were already wearing masks, professional, social, cultural. We all do it – put on a performance, be somebody else, hide our true selves… we put on a brave face to save face.
Another icon, the traditional theatrical masks, represent tragedy and comedy side by side – often two sides of the same mask – so thin is the divide.
I have often said that I want to live in Facebook Land! Because the majority of posts I see from friends and strangers all seem perfect. The sun is always shining, everyone is smiling, holidays are in paradise, celebrations are lavish, children are well behaved and Grade A students, family life looks idyllic…
Why do we portray these masks? To prevent others from seeing the real us? To fit in? To compete? To divert attention, or to attract attention? Whatever the reason, the root of wearing such masks is that we don’t feel good enough, or worthy enough, as we really are, so we project another version of ourselves which we hope is better or more acceptable.
And it almost works, we all play the game, until something comes along that strips our masks away – an illness, a death, a broken relationship, redundancy or a pandemic. It has been sobering to see the masks of bluster and self confidence fall away from the faces of our world leaders in the face of Coronavirus.
Love can strip away our masks too – and so can the needs of another person…
Jesus met many people in his short ministry and in almost every encounter the masks were removed by their need and vulnerability and by his compassion and empathy.
Remember the woman from Syrophoenicia? A classic example. Jesus found himself in another country, talking to a foreigner, who spoke a different language, grew up in a different culture, held different beliefs, but worst of all (in those times) she was a woman.
In their one, short conversation we see the masks of nationalism, race, language, tradition, religion and gender removed. Jesus and this unnamed woman took off the masks that separated them. They saw their common goal – a need – the life of her child, and they saw that this was no time for pretence, for masks… Desperation can do that.
Jesus dared to remove the masks placed upon him by his own Jewish faith and tradition, saying “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” He was exposing the racism and prejudice which was a part of his own people’s culture. “Dogs” was the slur thrown at gentiles, and anyone of mixed race, by devout Jews.
In response this frantic mother removed her mask of pride, position, even self respect and exposed her humility: “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
True dialogue has to be rooted in vulnerability – our willingness to show who we really are, to drop the pretence and be ourselves. When we hear politicians talking about fruitful dialogue, they usually mean business meetings where deals are struck and compromises made, where one side manages to deceive the other into agreeing something. That’s not true dialogue.
Nor is it compassion, or empathy, or love…out of true dialogue comes mutual understanding, respect and a safer, stronger way forward as companions – something we all dream of, and yearn for. And it all begins with having the courage to remove the masks, dropping the pretence and the play acting, daring to be ourselves. Or as Jesus put it – loving others as you love yourself.
In these strange and worrying days we are being confronted with challenges that cause our masks to drop away because we find ourselves unable to keep up the pretence. But admitting who we really are, how we really feel, that things are not perfect, and that we need help… these are the roots of a loving relationship. These are the roots of our faith…our faith in the God of perfect love who accepts us, calls us, embraces us… as we are.
Revd Martin Nicholls
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”