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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

What masks do to us

“When you wear a mask, you have my respect,” declares actor Morgan Freeman in the tone he uses when playing God. “Because your mask doesn’t protect you, it protects me.” So we are all now wearing masks to do our shopping, a necessary move given more recent research showing that face coverings inhibit the spread of the coronavirus especially in poorly ventilated spaces indoors. In fact, only last week my daughter visiting from Bedford, a virus hotspot, commented how few people here in Ormskirk are wearing masks in shops – even to the extent of being gently mocked as a ‘coronaphobe' by one supermarket checkout operator. I wore mine for the first time venturing into an almost empty M&S store, no one for miles (or metres). It didn’t come naturally - as if I was about to stage a holdup. To cover our faces, as the recent controversy over niqab and especially the burka shows, is considered entirely antisocial. Our faces show who we are, even our experience of life. As Enid Blyton memorably observed in The Naughtiest Girl Again, “I think people make their own faces, as they grow.” Above all our faces enable relationship. Wearing a mask it is difficult to smile, to reach out and affirm each other. We talk about people having an open face, open that is, for relationship. Fascinating how C S Lewis came to write his final novel in which he retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Here he examines conversion to Christ in how Orual as narrator experiences a complete change of mind as the book unwinds. Lewis entitled the book, considered by Tolkien to be his friend’s finest work: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. This comes from the climax of the novel when Orual asks: “How can (the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces?" The whole point of the novel is that Orual has always been told that she’s too ugly to love and as such she becomes embittered and abusive. She rails against the gods and as such she becomes “the faceless one.” However, it is only when Orual realises that she needs to be brutally honest with herself that she is able to relate to the divine. Only then is relationship possible, however hurting such openness may be. Conversion, as Lewis himself experienced, can be painful. Fascinating in how one of Lewis’ characters early in the book laments “I wonder do the gods know what it feels like to be a man.” But of course, Lewis is making an important allusion. Coming from a similar era of the Greek myths (but of a very different culture) is the book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible. In chapter 6 we plough through the section on how Nazarites (whoever they are) are to observe the law and then at its conclusion we come across this beautiful gem embedded in this legalese. “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 toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26). God not only turns his face towards us, open for relationship, his face shines, it glows with delight at seeing us. Here at the heart of creation is a smile, in total contrast to the capricious and vengeful gods of the Greek myths. However, we choose to look away and live our lives, alone and angry like Orual. Hence Jesus. For his mission is the direct consequence of our becoming like the faceless Orual as we disparage God’s rightful claim on our lives. One of my favourite verses of the New Testament is when the apostle Paul seeks to encourage the wayward Christians of Corinth: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6) To look into the face of Jesus is to look into the face of God himself, the incredible idea that the creator of this vast universe is open to relationship to any Orual or any Mary of Magdala, such is his love and longing to forgive. As Roy Hession writes in We would see Jesus, a great book worth reading “What exactly is it that we see when we look into the face of Jesus Christ? . . In him we see not only God but his glory displayed. This gives us a new understanding of that which makes God glorious and it comes as both a surprise and a shock. For the face that reveals the glory of God is a marred face, spat upon and disfigured by the malice of men.” As the prophet Isaiah foretold of the suffering Messiah: “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14). This, no less, is the face of God turned to us, looking to our response. No mask here, just an open face. Only when we are prepared to look directly in his eyes may we know his compassion and care. #cross #CSLewis

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