“Now is the time for the church to love our neighbors. If you love your neighbor, wear a mask. It will save lives.” That’s not a direct quote, but it’s a paraphrase of several emails I received last week as the mayor announced his executive order requiring face coverings in all public buildings, which includes churches. Who can argue with such a statement? As Christians we do, after all, value human life as a precious gift of God. As human beings, we were originally made in the beginning in the image of God, and every human life has dignity and worth because of that. Yes, we should love our neighbor and seek to do no harm. We should even be willing to make sacrifices that place demands on us for the sake of our neighbor. And when the issue is framed this way, anyone who questions the widespread use of masks or doesn’t always think they are worth wearing is selfish and unloving.
“It’s just a mask! What does it hurt to wear a mask?” While that question is usually thrown around rhetorically, I think it’s a question worth pondering. But not only from a scientific standpoint. Our society’s obsession and frankly, worship, of science precludes any answers to this question other than that studies show that masks do help at least a little bit, so there is no harm to wearing them and they probably help slow the spread of the virus. But there is more at stake in loving our neighbor than in simply approaching the problem of COVID from a purely scientific standpoint.
What’s in a face? Have you ever been walking behind someone that you thought might be someone you knew, but when they turned around, you very quickly realized you were mistaken? Our faces are the markers by which we can know and identify one another. If we did not have faces, it would be impossible for me to distinguish my own son from any other pale-skinned, strawberry-blonde little boy.
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to know what someone is thinking when you talk to them face to face rather than over email or text? When you speak to someone directly, the stress and pitch and cadence of their voice speak just as much as do the words that pass from their lips. But so does the approving smile, the raised eyebrow, and the dropped jaw. By a person’s face, we know who they are and even more importantly, they reveal themselves to us and we to them. Without seeing the faces of others, it would be impossible for us to establish any meaningful human connection or relationship. “As in water face answers face, so the heart of man to man,” said the wisest man ever to live, while inspired by the Holy Spirit (Prov. 27:19).
So that we could make God known, Jesus took on human flesh and blood. Because He became a man like us, mankind can look upon God’s face and know Him, touch Him with their hands, and see Him smile upon them. When He returns and raises up all the dead from the grave, we will look upon God face to face, and know Him fully, even as we will be fully known by Him (1 Corinthians 13:12).
It is good for us to love our neighbor. But that requires us to do much more than simply ask the medical community for its advice, important as that perspective is. Loving our neighbor is more than just wearing a mask or not. Loving our neighbor should also mean thinking about what effect various COVID strategies might have on all our neighbors. Depression and suicide rates among teenagers are at an all-time high, and lockdown procedures and facial coverings only further isolate them from their friends and community. Nursing homes have been in lockdown since April, and residents haven’t been able to see even immediate family members or receive a visit from their pastor. All of this was to protect them from the virus. But despite those measures, many are still getting the virus and dying, only now just depressed and alone, without the comfort of their loved ones or the consolation of the Lord’s body and blood. And what about our neighbors who are only a bad month away from losing their business and livelihood?
A few months ago, I was taking my kids out for lunch and I forgot to put a mask. As soon as Adam looked around and saw a few employees with masks, he started shouting at me and crying, “Daddy, put your mask on! You need to have a mask on! Put your mask on!” When I explained to him that the restaurant didn’t require masks and we would soon be seated with no one else around us, he still couldn’t be calmed. We could chalk that up to the illogical ravings of a four-year-old, and I wouldn’t completely disagree. But I think we should be concerned that this is a very formative time in life for younger children. I worry that we are conditioning them to see human interaction as dangerous and scary. I worry about that especially in a world that is already making it easier and easier to isolate ourselves from one another. What will family and community life even look like for his generation if our COVID mitigation efforts extend months into years? What will it do to older children who are already in school and find their learning increasingly disrupted?
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be wearing masks. Those who obstinately refuse to wear a mask in any circumstance, or when lovingly asked to by their neighbor, are putting their own interests above their neighbor’s. I don’t hesitate to say that, because of the drastically rising number of cases and the support requested from our hospital and healthcare system, it is the prudent and yes, loving, thing to wear a mask in at least certain situations. But we also need to be cognizant that those voices in our community asking us to consider the negative effects of a mask mandate are not speaking up because they don’t love their neighbors. It may be that they speak up precisely because they do.
As Christians, we especially need to be on guard against the attacks of the devil, who wants to divide us in any way he can. He’ll happily use COVID to sow the seeds of disunity in our congregation. Let’s resist that temptation. There are different opinions about what is the wisest and most loving course of action in response to COVID. Whatever your opinion is, let’s listen to one another, learn from one another, interpret everything in the kindest way, and love one another.
There couldn’t be a better time to reflect on the peace and unity we have with one another in Christ Jesus, that triumphs over all earthly division. For this is the time of year in which we celebrate the child who was born to bring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14). I know this will be a difficult Christmas for many, but don’t let the fear and weariness of COVID rob you of the joy that is yours in Christ Jesus! He has died to defeat sin and sickness and death forever. Nothing can separate you from His promises. Whether wearing a mask or not, by faith “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
May the Lord bless you and keep you and your family this Advent and Christmas, as you behold the glory of the Lord in the babe at Bethlehem, and see in Him your redemption, your forgiveness, and your peace.