Meyer’s Musings from Semi-Confinement, Part 2
REV. PHILIP MEYER, PASTOR EMERITUS
We’ve grown accustomed to seeing and wearing masks. At first, they were the plain white masks that one got at the home improvement store or drug store, but when those were sucked up by enterprising folks or just plain hoarders, people began making their own to ease the shortage. Many took to their sewing machines and followed the patterns published online.
Lately, mask makers have gotten creative. Some have sewn on their favorite sports team logo. Others have done even more work and made them look like works of art. Some are even grotesque-looking, monster-like. Our local paper has encouraged people to “Show us your mask” by sending in a photo. It’s become a mini-Halloween contest. I prefer to use a neck gaiter, something that runners wear to guard against dust, or in winter to minimally warm the air on a cold day. The gaiter can be pulled up like a bandana. I like that because I’ve always wanted to go into a bank or a liquor store with it pulled up. These days I know I won’t be shot for doing it. A year ago one would probably have encountered law enforcement. Now even the police are wearing masks.
Psychologists use the language of masks to describe how we hide certain traits that we don’t want others to see. For example, someone may cover his rage and hate with a façade of love, compassion, and toleration. We don’t see them for who they really are; they’re masked. One of the most memorable persons is the Pharisee in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. He hides behind a mask of outward holiness and supposed goodness. He orally presents his “goodness” for all to hear.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” [Luke 18.11b-12]
That’s quite a lovely mask you are wearing, Mr. Pharisee! But none of us is immune. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck coined a term “People of the Lie” to describe this. I don’t think it’s great insight because the Bible describes it throughout. Jacob, for example, means “deceiver.” He was aptly named. His exploits in cheating Esau out of the inheritance make interesting reading. So, too, much of the rest of his life. He was a man of the lie.
Dr. Hermann Sasse, perhaps the greatest 20th century Lutheran theologian, penned an essay in the dark days of 1933 in Germany about the loss of integrity in the Lutheran Church. I’ve quoted these words many times.
“The lie is the death of man, his temporal and his eternal death. The lie kills nations. The most powerful nations of the world have been laid waste because of their lies. History knows of no more unsettling sight than the judgment rendered upon the people of an advanced culture who have rejected the truth and are swallowed up in a sea of lies. Where this happens, as in the case of declining pagan antiquity, religion and law, poetry and philosophy, life in marriage and family, in the state and society—in short, one sphere of life after another falls sacrifice to the power and curse of the lie. Where man denies that he and others are dying, the terrible dissolution [of his culture] is held up as a glorious ascent, and decline is viewed as an advance, the likes of which has never been experienced. . . . There is the pious lie. It is the hypocrisy by which a man lies to others and the intellectual self-deception by which he lies to himself about what he actually believes . . . [Thus] the greatest ethicist of our church once spoke, warning the theologians of his and our time about the most grievous sin, the lie to God.” [The Lonely Way, Selected Essays and Letters, Vol. 1, p. 266]
Some of the writers I read often make reference to Dante’s Inferno. I confess that I have never read the whole thing through. I get bogged down. It’s long and sometimes the language is difficult and I set it aside and vow to come back to it. Some day I’ll read it all the way through. But one of the images that recently caught my attention was Dante’s monster of fraud, the Geryon. A depiction of him is truly frightening. He is physically horrifying, but he has the face of a man! An honest man! Are we talking about politicians here? To be sure! We’re really talking about all of us. We are so very often fraudulent people because we mask our real thoughts and desires behind a veneer of piety. People manipulate others. We’ve been on the receiving end of that one, haven’t we? Someone has used us for unholy means. But we can’t claim innocence because we have been able to hide behind our masks of piety as well.
The Pharisee in the parable was clueless. He had no inner self-awareness. He couldn’t see himself without his piety mask. He couldn’t see the darkness in his own soul. It seems that Jesus indicts us all in that parable, Pharisee AND Tax Collector. Yet, it is only the latter who confesses his sin and throws himself on the mercy of God. Confessing one’s sins pulls away the mask of self-deceit. It is only faith wrought by God the Holy Spirit that enables us to say, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” It is only that faith that can joyfully chant, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” Such a person goes home justified in God’s eyes.
Masks don’t keep us from getting sick for the most part. We’re supposed to wear them to keep others from getting something we might carry. On the news there was a video of a woman on Staten Island, NY, who went into a grocery store without a mask. Soon there were outraged people shouting and cursing at her for not wearing a mask. Lots going on there to analyze! I thought out loud, “Where’s the love?” Those screaming and cursing at her hid behind their masks. One wonders if they would have dared do that without a mask.
Before God we are all naked. No masks, no clothes, like Adam and Eve after they sinned. Yet there is a covering which makes us pure and clean, without disease before God. That is the white garment of Holy Baptism which covers all our sins. Some day—I hope it is soon!—we’ll no longer be required to wear masks to keep from harming others. In the meantime we can be confident that the garment of Christ’s righteousness which is bestowed in Holy Baptism is all that we need to wear in this life.