As we entered the Holy Altar this past weekend to celebrate Saturday evening Vespers, we were struck with the incongruity of the image here - a mask hanging "at the ready" on the censer stand, near the Holy Altar.
But what are we to garner from THIS "sign of the times"?
There remain in the Holy Canons bans on attendance at theater events. When studying the canons in seminary, we asked a mentor why such canons were implemented. The response was that theater had people engaged in two activities that were counter to Christian principle. First, they were pretending to be someone they are not. Second, they wore masks to cretate (or enhance) the illusion of being someone they are not. The explanation held that these canons responded to the errant position of hiding our true selves, for people may be fooled, but God is never fooled ("for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of man", 1Kings 8:39).
Whether the explanation had merit or not, it bears upon our own use of masks today. Truly we are not "the same people" having donned these appliances. How are we different?
St. Paul, as he teaches about love, speaks to the issue of things being hidden with these words: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known." (1Cor 13:12) While masked we can't "see" the person in front of us. Smiles, frowns, grimaces, all of these are hidden. We're not showing others what we're sensing. Our Lord's words in Matthew 6:22-24 lead to the contemporary expression, "The eyes are the window to the soul," but they state the concept differently. "The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light." Our Lord's words speak to light coming IN. But we don't send OUT a smile through the eyes. Love is expressed in the fullness of the way God created us to share expressions with one another. How are we different? While masked, our ability to show true agape love is compromised.
But additionally, the mask (for some, not all) can be an expression of fear. "If I don't wear this, I might die." We have no intention here to change anyone's mind on whether a mask should or should not be worn. Rather, our purpose is to help all move from living in fear to a return to living, a return to life.
In this country, within Christianity in general, and within the Orthodox Church in particular, we find ourselves in a state of fasting.
That's right - all of us are "fasting." But we're fasting from the wrong things. Our fast is not from things which will aid spiritual growth (food, strong drink, gossip, avarice, lust, etc.) but from those things that the Holy Church has given us since its inception to PROMOTE our spiritual growth. Number of confessions in the past 10 months? Down significantly. Communicants at the Chalice at any given Liturgy? Down significantly. Attendees at any Divine Service? About half of what they were a year ago. And, sad to say, in some Orthodox Churches attendance is limited, requiring people to "sign up" before attending. Are we really at a point of wanting to "take names" of those desiring to attend Liturgy? How can we welcome people who wish to learn about the faith under such conditions?
Our Lord instructed us (Mat 25:35-36) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked to give drink to the thirsty, to visit the sick and imprisoned, and to take in the stranger. With our following of "rules" we may continue in several of these activities, but how can we claim to be feeding the hungry when our own faithful, languishing without the Eucharist, are being starved, and 'strangers' who may wish to enter and pray with us are being shut out of our doors?
When will we, as spiritual guides to our faithful, begin to preach to them of their need to return? When will we throw open our doors to any and all who choose to enter?
The Holy Eucharist cannot bring harm to anyone who approaches in faith. May our Lord give all of us the wisdom to understand this, and to return to that sincere desire to worship Him in faith and love - in His house, not through a video broadcast. For those who are not targets to the pandemic (over 70 with mitigating health issues), let us return so that we may pray in the fear of God, not in the fear of a virus. And if and when you receive your vaccine regardless of age, why would one choose NOT to return?