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We lose much when the face is covered up

by
20 July 2020

Christians should long and pray for the day when this sadly necessary imposition will end, says Edward Dowler

“THE middle part of the face doesn’t change much over the years.” This was an excellent insight that a former parishioner gave me when a much-loved member of our church, Rose Hood, had recently died at an advanced age.

We were fascinated by a photograph (top, left) of her which, although taken in her early twenties, was none the less unmistakably the person whom we recognised (top, right).

This comment helped me to realise that, while other parts of us may change very much over time, the central part of our face remains pretty constant. It is our knowability: that which remains the same about us as we go through the changes and chances of this fleeting world.

It is, therefore, a very serious matter when, as in the present circumstances, we are required to cover it up.

 

THE face has enormous theological resonance. In one sense, the Old Testament places a strict prohibition on seeing God’s face: we cannot presume to see the Lord in his fullness and still live (Exodus 33.20). And yet the Hebrew scriptures make frequent reference to seeking God’s face. God’s face is his presence, his knowability, and this is what differentiates the God of the Hebrew Bible from the “God of the philosophers”.

Nobody can see the face of Plato’s “form of the good”, or Aristotle’s “prime mover”; nobody can relate to such entities. But the God of the Bible makes his face shine upon us and lifts up his countenance upon us (Numbers 6.26). He personally encounters us, and we can come to know him: “‘Come’, my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face Lord, do I seek” (Psalm 27.8).

In the New Testament, this insight is extended yet further when this same God reveals his face to us in human form: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6). Such knowledge in Christ prepares for, and ushers in, the time when we will no longer see God through a glass darkly, but when we will see him face to face (1 Corinthians 13.12).

The tradition of icons in Orthodox Christianity reflects this. As Andrew Louth writes, “as we gaze at the icon we enter into . . . a face to face relationship . . . the only faces depicted on icons in profile are those people to whom we are not to relate — Judas, for instance, in the icon of the Mystical Supper.”

These theological insights have a vital human dimension. Just as we are to seek the face of the Lord, he encounters us in a similar way: “Behold our shield, O God: look on the face of your anointed” (Psalm 84.9).

In his book The God of Jesus Christ (Ignatius Press, 2018), Pope Benedict XVI reflects on the dehumanising tendencies of authoritarian dictatorships, such as the Nazi Germany of his own youth, to turn everything and everyone into statistics, and thereby to efface the face.

The Christian vision of God and the human person is the precise opposite, he writes. “The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers. But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a ‘world machinery’. On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own.”

The full import of face-covering came home to me last week, when I watched on YouTube my two new episcopal colleagues being consecrated in the chapel of Lambeth Palace (News, 17 July).

Not only did the fact that everybody was wearing a face mask make the liturgy seem faintly ridiculous, but the participants were oddly dehumanised: that which makes them distinct and knowable was taken away. Only the daughter of one of the new bishops was able to break through it, communicating a particular set of responses through some unmistakable body language. God was able, on that day, to look upon the faces of his anointed, but we were unfortunately denied the opportunity.

 

I HAVE a beautiful face mask of my own: it was hand-made for me by a friend who also happens to be the daughter of the bishop who confirmed me.

I accept, reluctantly, that, in the heavily risk-averse culture of 21st-century society, I will need to wear it for a while, if only to give reassurance to frightened people, and, perhaps, help prevent the reimposition of far more draconian and restrictive measures. And I am sure that the Church of England will issue responsible and appropriate guidance on this matter, although I also hope that we will call for a more persuasive account of what these coverings actually achieve.

But I do believe that Christians are now called urgently to speak about the glory of the human face, which uniquely seeks and reflects God’s own face; about how much we lose when it is covered up; and about how we long and pray for the day to come soon when this imposition on our faces will end.

 

The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.

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