I have heard it said time and time again: “Wearing a face covering is a small sacrifice to love your neighbor.” All this in the context of discussing face masks ever since the CDC and, some experts, decided that it was, in fact, an effective (however small) way to protect people from COVID-19. My goal here is not to debate the relative effectiveness of masks or the dangers posed by the virus. Rather, I want to object to the idea that there is relatively little cost involved in the broad adoption of masking. What we should not do is act like it is a ‘small sacrifice’ and that there is little to no cost to wearing masks for an extended period of time. That is simply not true.

For some, there is a health cost. For all there is a small cost to their ability to take in air. Assuming one is wearing a more effective mask, N95 for example—arguably, the most effective way to prevent airborne particles from transferring to another, there is a cost to breathing well. You can breathe in 20% less air with an N95 mask (there is also the problem of breathing in Carbon Dioxide, see here: https://anesthesiology.pubs.asahq.org/article.aspx?articleid=2766085; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4647822/). Imagine wearing that mask most of the day. How might that affect some people? We have already heard of cases of people passing out from lack of breath (https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/live-blog/2020-04-24-coronavirus-news-n1191511/ncrd1192291). And, others have experienced skin irritation and bacteria build up. It’s not a surprise given that masks are serving, to some extent, to contain whatever is coming out of the mouth.

There is another cost. It is a social cost. Consider all those times that you went to the store and you could see happy smiling faces. This certainly aids with keeping people happy. Well, no longer can we do that. But, for how long? Is this the “new norm”? Consider the cost to communication. On several occasions chatting with other persons, I can no longer read their facial expressions. That’s not an insignificant cost. What about the fact that speaking through masks requires us to raise our voices, and, yet still, our voices are often muffled in the process. Worse than that, the uniqueness of the person is captured empirically in the face. No other part of the body reveals the person like the face. Is that an insignificant cost? I don’t believe so, and I know others will agree.

Theologically speaking, there is a cost to facemasks, but this requires we step back and give some attention to the subject of faces. Arriving at a theology of faces is difficult because there is not a lot of substantive work on the subject. With that said, there has been some work on faces within the theology of the body, particularly in the reflections of John Paul II and some authoritative statements in Roman Catholic theology (see the Lumen Gentium).[1] In more than one place, John Paul II gives some theological commentary on the nature of faces and their purpose in an ordered system of nature designed by God. For those who are committed to natural law theory, it is easy to see why. Physical reality permeates with spiritual meaning. Physical parts, too, point, as teleological signs toward some spiritual reality. Facial teleology, we might call it, finds traction in the thematic development of faces in Scripture.

In keeping with an ancient Christian understanding of the world, the final end or purpose of humanity is the beatific vision. 1 Corinthians 13:12, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now, I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” Beatific vision is described as the highest and most personal form of communion with another, in this case God, and the ‘face’ is suggested as that part of the body which reveals the person. “When we see him, we shall be like him” (1 John) and we will see God face to face. All this is predicated on the fact that Christ experiences perfect communion with God the Father in the Gospel of John, which we are said to experience with faces full of glory in Revelation. But to hide the face is considered in Scripture to be a form of disguise after the Fall. It undermines the purpose of which faces are intended.

In keeping with the social cost, there is a revelational cost (see: https://www.chron.com/life/article/Author-says-the-face-reveals-a-person-s-character-2050857.php; https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/head-games/201703/3-things-your-face-tells-the-world). Faces are the most unique and personal form of visual communication. There is no other body part that conveys the clearest meaning of the person. Further, it creates space for communion with another. The Scriptures make clear that the face-to-face encounter is the context for communion with the other. As stated above, this is not only the analogical meaning of what is intended in beatific vision for Christ with his Father and for children with God in Christ, but it is one’s final theological end that is predicated on an understanding of physical face-to-face encounter. Genesis 2:7, at a minimum, is suggestive of this fact. When God, the Creator, looks upon the face of man, he breathes life into man and makes him whole. Genesis 3:8 gives us the contrary of beatific vision when it states that Adam and Eve “hid from the face of God.” This theme of hiding faces is present later on in Genesis 4:6 with Cain ‘hiding’ and in Exodus 33:23 when God hides his face (cf. Genesis 33:10). In commenting on Scheler which has influenced John Paul II’s body theology, Joshua Miller summarizes the theological significance of face in revelation quite well, when he states: “It also often comes to us in our imagination; we literally picture the person, especially her face, as a kind of incarnation of this individual value essence.”[2]

The New Testament points Christians in a different direction rather than hiding our faces, revealing our faces to God as he reveals his face in the person and work of Christ. When we see him face to face, undoubtedly, that takes on a spiritual meaning, but in an Ancient understanding the spiritual was often a reflection of an empirically detectible reality, and the same goes for the physical as a representation of the spiritual. So, it is not a coincidence that John and Paul use the language of ‘face’ for a reality that is spiritual in nature. To cover the face shuts down the possibility for true communion.

My own tradition of Anglicanism mirrors this theme in multiple places. Our common liturgical stance in morning and evening prayer is not to hide our faces, but, instead, to uncover our faces as an expression of transparency before God (i.e., face to face). The practice of not disguising the face and remaining open to communion with the face of God becomes an important liturgical stance in everyday prayer. For example, leading into The General Confession, the BCP 28 states: “that we should not dis-semble nor cloak before the face of the Almighty God our heavenly Father.”[3]

In our theology proper (i.e., our doctrine of God), God’s hiding his face is a sign of his disfavor. In Job 13:24, Job cries out to God saying, “Why do You hide Your face and consider me as Your enemy?” In Psalm 13:1, one paradigm example of the psalmist in the context of his devotions with God, says: “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” Isaiah 45:15 gives us one example of the same meaning, “Truly You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” God reveals himself through incarnational language of face, and his hiding of the face is a sign of displeasure.

In our anthropology, several passages continue this theme of ‘hiding’ as a result of the Fall into sin after Genesis 3:8. Hiding one’s face from God is a sign of covenantal disobedience. Isaiah 40:27-28, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the LORD, and my judgment is passed over from my God?” Our theology of the body highlights the importance of face-to-face encounter. Attending to other body parts, once again, fails to reveal the uniqueness of the ‘image’ of each particular human being.

Recent psychological studies on second personal encounters highlight the anthropological relevance of face (see here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00673/full). Second personal encounters allow for this fascinating phenomena of what some cognitive scientists have called mind reading (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/mind-reading; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3368580/). It may not literally entail mind reading, but it does reveal quite a lot that impinges on robust personal communication. We might go even further and suggest that it affects the dispositions in such a way that we miss a deeper personal encounter.

By visually entering into a face, we encounter its inner life through the facial expressions and probing eyes, but it is the culmination of all the details about the face that allows individuals to read the thoughts of others. This is fairly easy to illustrate. Most have had a romantic encounter that allows one to enter the thoughts of another. You know that he knows what you are thinking as each other stares longingly into the eyes of the other. But, this not only happens in romantic encounters. Family members, friends, and co-workers experience a similar phenomena. John Paull II has clearly shown, it is with the face that we relay the love we have for other humans beings through an act of openness and transparency.

While some find the suggestion that 2 Corinthians 3:18 has nothing to contribute to the discussion, think again.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit

Remembering that the ancients considered a common mirror relationship between the spiritual and the embodied life of humans, the logic would entail that the ‘unveiled face’ in some way informs our theology of faces. It’s not a coincidence that Paul uses the ‘face’ of believers as an analogue for spiritual reality.

Assuming you, the reader, buy into a sacramental theology, then facial theology is all the more important for how we conceive of faces and their significance. In the Lumen Gentium as well as other authoritative theological commentaries, the Church is described as the face of Christ. One Cardinal summarizes the teaching in the following:

“In sum, the Church is called to reflect his Face, the face of Christ Teacher, Prophet, Priest and King, in order that we can say of her in relation to Christ what Christ said of himself in relation to the Father:  “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn 14,9). The basic mission of the Church is to be the transparence of Christ and of his face. Human beings have the inalienable right to be able to see the face of the Lord in the face of the Church, in order that in her and through her they can see and contemplate him.”

What might this mean if it is not already predicated on the sacramental notion that physical faces have some important role to play in our theological anthropology and an incarnational theology of Divine attributes? Something worth pondering, surely.[4]

Wearing a mask may be helpful to preventing the spread of COVID. But there is still something real that is lost by masking and we should not pass over the point too quickly, otherwise we might become acclimated to something that, if normalized after COVID, would be genuinely harmful to our society.

  1. See John Paul II, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books, 1997). Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (Alba House, 2009). Also see C.S. Lewis, Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold (Broadway: Harper One, 2017).
  2. Joshua Miller, “Scheler on the Twofold Source of Personal Uniqueness,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 769.1, 167.
  3. John Wallace Suter (ed.), The Book of Common Prayer (Greenwich: The Seabury Press, 1953), 5.
  4. For work that touches on these issues, see Joshua R. Farris, An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).
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Posted by Joshua Farris

Joshua R. Farris is the Executive Director of Alpine Christian School. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Bristol, UK. He was the Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake; a part-time Lecturer at Auburn University, Montgomery; a Visiting Fellow at The Creation Project, Carl F.H. Henry at TEDS; and Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University.

  • Isn’t there always a cost to loving your neighbors?

    • disastrous_mangos

      Yes, there is. I’m confused as to why this isn’t the conclusion of all this complaining and googling.

  • progish

    Please fully read the medical journal studies before citing them. When you read the articles beyond the title, the conclusions the researchers reach actually say that wearing masks may improve one’s health since it mimics how your body works hard during exercise. The other study is looking at impact of N95 masks on a particular subgroup of healthcare employees and even then, there is no decrease of oxygen saturation. There is a legitimate cost on social interactions related to wearing masks, but that point is vastly diminished because the due diligence wasn’t attended to earlier in the article. Not the high quality of argumentation that usually befits this site.

  • Jeffrey Ploegstra

    I appreciate the perspective on the ways and meaning of encountering others and Christ and would certainly agree that there are real costs to the steps we are taking to limiting spread of COVID. Like masking, remote worship is something that I hope doesn’t become normalized for many people. That being said, I think it is sad to pit a temporary public/physical health consideration against spiritual, social, psychological, and economic well-being. People frequently only consider things as they are, not as they likely would have been had we not taken the steps we have. The physical, social, economic, psychological and spiritual well-being of all of us is stretching. The projections of what it would have looked like had we done nothing are worse on every count. Can you imagine what it would feel like to watch even a single person in your congregation die, knowing that you likely could have prevented it by wearing a mask until a vaccine was available? What about when your clergy falls ill and is unable to serve the congregation? Or multiple members are hospitalized for weeks- and you know that you could have done something….

    It is always hard to really grasp what could have been.

  • Physiocrat

    Excellent article. That people think the face is unimportant belies a view of humans as essentially disembodied.

    The complaints by other commentators sound like the “fact checkers” which find a possible error and then cite it as “mostly false” when the major argument is actually uncontested.