Continued from part 1, on the pandemic response as idolatry
…and they shall see his face; and his name shall be on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:4)
I have said that your face belongs to Christ, and I have likened modern Christians wearing masks to ancient Christians offering incense to Caesar. It is participating in a lie, and signaling submission to another power than Christ.
Lest I overstate my case, let’s acknowledge that the comparison is not exact. Wearing a mask is not as insidious as offering incense, because it is not as intentional a repudiation of the lordship of Christ. But, lest I also understate my case, let’s now turn to the fact that a mask is also more insidious than the pinch of incense. In a very important sense, it is a more blatant, more flagrant attack on Christ’s lordship—because it seeks to remove the very thing that identifies us as God’s image.
To be faceless is to have no identity; to become inhuman. It is the ultimate expression of the atomization of the individual and the disenchantment of reality: reducing God’s image-bearers to a meaningless horde.
This might sound OTT, but consider the enormous symbolic significance of faces in Scripture. It is a term that appears within the second verse of the Bible—and repeatedly thereafter.
This fact is often obscured by Bibles which seek to interpret the words of God into good English, rather than translate them as closely as possible into the equivalent words in English. For instance, even the “wooden” NASB renders p’ney (face) in Genesis 1:2 as “surface.” Dynamic versions like the NIV and NET, while useful for some applications, are even worse at this. Hence my preference for translations like the ASV and LSV, which tend to be more intentional about preserving the words of Scripture, so the reader is left with the job of identifying and interpreting important word patterns—at the expense of a polished English reading experience.
What is a face? It is the outermost or uppermost part of a thing: that which both separates and connects what lies within, and what exists without (think of a computer interface). It can be the outermost limit of the depths of an ocean (Gen 1:2), the place of access to the potential of the land (Gen 1:29), or—most importantly—the part of man that reveals his heart to the world (Gen 4:5–6). The face represents the inner man. It thus establishes relational presence: seeing someone’s face means to have a direct access or communion, for good or ill (Gen 43:3; Ex 10:28; Dt 7:10; 28:31; 2 Ki 14:8; Mt 18:10). To seek God’s face is to seek to know him; i.e., to enter into fellowship with him (2 Chr 7:14).
The face, in other words, is a physical expression of our inner spirit; literally a symbol of our soul. This is why…
- To set one’s face is to set one’s self towards or against something (Gen 31:21; Lev 17:10; Ezk 4:3; 6:2; 13:17 etc; Lk 9:51);
- To say that someone’s face is fallen or sad is to say that his heart is cast down (Gen 4:5; Neh 2:2–3; Job 9:27);
- A man can have a face like a lion (1 Chronicles 12:8), or harder than rock (Jer 5:3);
- Gladness and strength of heart can be combined in a parallel triplet with a shining face (Ps 104:15);
- A brazen face can refer to an impudent attitude (Pr 7:13)
- A hypocrite is likened to a man who forgets his own face (Jas 1:23).
The face being a symbol of the soul is also why facial deformities are so psychologically destructive. We are designed to naturally trust and like beautiful people, and to feel instinctive reservations and revulsion about ugly or deformed people.
As a symbol of our full selves, the face represents and mediates our identity to others. Hence, when Cain was cut off from God, he was hidden from God’s face (Gen 4:14); whereas Moses, with unprecedented fellowship, spoke with God face to face as a man speaks to his friend (Ex 33:11). Yet Moses could not see God’s true face—that which his physical face expressed—unveiled by flesh, for to see the full expression of God’s glory would consume him (Ex 33:20; Gen 32:30; Jdg 6:22). In a related vein, the face is also frequently combined with the symbolism of light to express favorable presence and gift-giving (Num 6:25; Ex 34:29; Job 29:24; Ps 4:6); and conversely with hiding or darkness to signify the removal of favor and help (Dt 31:17; Job 23:17; Ps 13:1; Lam 4:8). (The references here are merely examples; if I listed them all there would be more citations than article.)
Much of this is really quite obvious. We know from experience that the face reveals the heart. This is why the Empty Child continues to be an ominous and unsettling character. But it is necessary to labor the point because few Christians have spent time meditating on the significance of this. It is something we intuitively know, because it is built into our nature—but in order to appreciate its implications, intuitive knowledge must be channeled into a considered understanding.
What you communicate when you cover your face
Because facial symbolism is so all-encompassing, being about our very identities, there is great significance to covering the face. There is also much room for subtlety in the meaning of this covering, depending on how it is used. For instance, falling on one’s face to cover it often expresses being undone in some way, whether for honor or dishonor (Gen 17:3; 19:1; Josh 5:14; 7:6; Num 14:5; 1 Sam 5:4; 2 Sam 19:4), while veiling the face can indicate that one is up to something illicit (Gen 38:15), or up to very much the same thing in a licit context (Gen 24:64–65). This particular use of the symbolic pattern is, in fact, so deeply pressed into the heart of mankind that it persists even today, as many brides still choose to wear vestigial veils at their weddings, despite the best efforts of feminism to eradicate the notion of veiling a woman in any way (cf. 1 Corinthians 11).
What all these uses of covering share in common is the following unifying principle:
Hiding the face is a declaration of comparison. It is to say either, “Who I am is of no account compared to this other thing,” or sometimes, “What this other thing is, is of no account to me” (Isa 53:3).
Notice that the import of such a declaration is not at all confined to mere social rank. It inevitably reflects on your inner being. It is a declaration about the value of your identity. It is a statement about your meaning as a human being. This can be for good or ill, but whether for good or ill, it just does signal something about you, or about someone else by relationship to you: whether modesty and submission, or unworthiness and subjection.
When you comply with a command to cover your face, it signals the same thing. Comportment is communication. For a lawful command, you may communicate your meekness and submission to rightful authority—virtues. But when that command itself is abusive and unlawful, it communicates rather more: that you yourself are of small account; paltry, unimportant, meaningless.
In the case of masking, you communicate that you are of small account compared to the state-god, and its false reality and idolatrous rituals. It is to self-demean, to blot out your identity, to literally efface yourself and what you know to be true, for a lie from a false god about the greater good. It is to say you are unworthy of fellowship with your fellow man, and to physically cut that fellowship off by removing the “surface” upon which it takes place, at the behest of an idol.
What you communicate when you cover your mouth
There is also further symbolism associated specifically with covering the mouth. When Yahweh speaks to Job out of the storm, Job replies:
Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee?
I lay my hand upon my mouth.
Once have I spoken, and I will not answer;
Yea, twice, but I will proceed no further. (Job 40:4–5)
Here we see again being made of small account—but we also see quite obviously the refusal to speak; or, put another way, the willingness to be silenced.
While covering your face blots out your identity, covering your mouth blots out your voice—which in turn represents your agency in the world, your capacity to image the “true speech” of John 1:1 and Genesis 1:3, which I mentioned in the first part of this series. This capacity is evidenced even by common sayings like “giving someone a voice,” ensuring that a particular group “has a voice,” or “speaking up” for yourself or another.
There is thus a doubly insidious element to masking, in that it covers enough of the face to obliterate your identity, but is especially targeted at removing your voice. To mask yourself is to make yourself of small account, and to give up your agency; to self-demean, and self-censor. It is a kind of recursive lie, in which you communicate falsehood, and simultaneously your unwillingness or inability to speak against that falsehood.
The effect of mass masking
Now notice what happens when everyone does this. Society itself becomes faceless, meaningless, and voiceless. If the face is the surface that both connects and separates the inner realities of things, then when everyone’s face is obscured, there is no surface to connect people together, nor to distinguish them from one another. No mechanism of fellowship or sociality, nor of self-differentiation or individuality.
The reason I spoke before of mass masking in terms of a “meaningless horde” is precisely because it follows the same symbolic pattern that zombie movies tap into. Before the 20th century, zombies were essentially unheard of as a cultural trope anywhere. Yet from the mid-20th century a steady trickle of “proto-zombie” films started to appear, until they truly captured our cultural imagination with Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 1978. The reason is not difficult to discern: prior to this time, no culture has ever faced such atomization, such a loss of cohesion—and survived to pass on its stories. The trope of empty individuals, individuals lacking true personal agency, all part of a horde, yet sharing no social connection that makes them functional members of that larger body, devouring anyone who retains his personal individuality—particularly, devouring what makes you, you, by eating your brain—this is the story of modern urban life, taken to its extreme and expressed in symbolic terms.
Why are our governments trying to recreate this pattern in reality? Why are they seeking to silence and deface their own citizens?
They obviously cannot save either individuals or society by destroying the very thing that makes us functional members of one body.
This also emphasizes why we cannot escape the symbolic meaning of face coverings. As I have already indicated, symbolism is not merely a linguistic or even cultural convention. Symbols are not metaphors. A metaphor, crudely put, is a figure of our speech, whereby one thing represents another. But a symbol, crudely put, is a figure of God’s speech, whereby he spoke into being physical things to represent spiritual ones. Symbolism, in other words, is what the world is. It is built into the structure of creation, and thus into the nature of humanity. So certain patterns express certain spiritual realities, regardless of whether we are well-attuned to them or not, and regardless of whether we would like it to be otherwise.
We can use these patterns, but we cannot change them. We continue to walk upright, for instance, with our heads on the tops of our bodies, despite our cultural hatred of headship and hierarchy. Up and down continue to hold their obvious significance, despite our empirical confusion about not finding heaven in space, nor hell within the earth. And in the same way, we continue to recognize people by their faces and voices, and these things continue to represent our identity, meaning, agency and power over our world—regardless of our best efforts to pretend otherwise. For example, even as we try to suggest that masking up doesn’t convey what Scripture and nature both tell us it conveys, that indeed it now signals explicitly loving yourself and your neighbor, rather than implicitly hating both, feminists continue to decry the niqab and the burqa as dehumanizing symbols of subjugation.
Because being forced to cover your face is a dehumanizing symbol of silence and subjugation.
Making God’s image and glory of no account
…and his face was as the sun shining in full strength. (Revelation 1:16)
There is another critically important thread to draw into my case—a thread which returns us to the issue of worship.
Simply put, Scripture links the face not just with our own identity, but with the image and glory of God himself. Thus, to cover the face is symbolically to make God’s own image and glory of no account.
The easiest way to see this is to remember the very strange thing that happened to Moses when he spent time with God on Mount Sinai:
And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face shone by reason of his speaking with him. And when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses spake to them. And afterward all the sons of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that Yahweh had spoken with him in mount Sinai. And when Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. But when Moses went in before Yahweh to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and he came out, and spake unto the sons of Israel that which he was commanded. And the sons of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exodus 34:29–35)
This is yet another thing in Scripture that is discomforting and confusing to our empirical mindset, but perfectly comprehensible—even predictable—given a symbolic approach. For our purposes, two things are most important to note:
- Moses’ face reflects God’s glory physically;
- Moses conceals this glory with a veil, due to the Israelites’ fear.
Paul takes up the theological significance of this in 2 Corinthians 3 as he speaks of the ministry of the new covenant:
Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, and are not as Moses, who put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away: but their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart. But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:12–18)
The depths of this are profound, but the shallows are easy to navigate:
- The veil that Moses wore was, like all veils, an implicit judgment of worthiness. You might imagine that it was a judgment on the glory of God, but in fact it was a judgment on the people who were afraid to see that glory. Paul tells us that their minds were hardened, and the veil was thus a symbol of their unworthiness to receive God’s glory. The brightness of Moses’ face was concealed from their physical eyes precisely because the glory of God was already concealed from their spiritual eyes. Paul is very clear: their hearts were veiled, and thus hardened against the gospel.
The gospel, being the message of who God is and what he has done, existed in the Old Testament as much as in the New, although it was not of course the gospel of Jesus but of Yahweh. For more on this, see The Gospel as a Message of Triumph.
- When we receive the gospel, the veil is removed from our hearts—and therefore Paul emphasizes the unveiling of our faces. The face, as the visible representation of the heart, is where we see God’s glory reflected. It is where we receive the glory of the Lord, and where we reflect it back, as we are transformed into his image. Paul describes our faces as mirrors reflecting that glory back to each other. This is because the face reflects the heart, and the heart reflects the image of God—thus our faces reflect the image of God. The face is literally a symbol of God’s image and glory. Hence he says in another place, “a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7).
This is not some arcane item of theological trivia. It is foundational to human nature itself. When God made Adam, he made him in his own image and likeness. This image and likeness was first and foremost spiritual, for God is spirit. But because Adam is physical, his body is itself a visible representation of his invisible spirit—and it is in his face that this invisible image is brought to full manifestation. Both theologically and phenomenologically, the face is how we commune with other images of God—and with God himself.
Thus, to conceal the face is to conceal the image and glory of God.
Because someone is going to ask, this is attenuated in the case of women, who are the glory of man; they image God indirectly. For more on this, see Are Women Made in the Image of God? The symbolism of man and woman, glory and coverings, would take us further afield than I want to go in this article, but suffice to note that while women are bade to cover their heads in worship, they are not bade to cover their faces.
Are there times when it is right to conceal God’s image? Of course. There are times when modesty or safety—real safety—demand that we briefly cover and even protect God’s image in our face. But to do so continually in a social setting—and especially in church, of all places—and especially to do so at the command of a lying government that we know is in some sense demonically steered, is not just cowardly and foolish, but clear idolatry.
To refuse to do so is not rebellion. Rebellion is a rejection of lawful authority. We are not rebelling. We are resisting unlawful authority. We are free men declining to build our own slave-house.
For the Lord Yahweh will help me; therefore have I not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50:7)
But the converse follows inevitably—that Jesus speaks of many modern Christians when he speaks of those who honor him with their lips, but whose heart is far away, and they worship in vain, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men (Mt 15:8–9).
You become what you worship
We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. (1 John 3:2)
To close out this leg of the series, let me return to the beginning. Man was made to worship, and all of life is worship. Patterns of worship are built into creation, and work out in every culture, regardless of religion or lack of religion—including our own.
There is one final pattern around worship that deserves consideration before we move into practical questions.
They have mouths, but they speak not;
Eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not;
Noses have they, but they smell not;
They have hands, but they handle not;
Feet have they, but they walk not;
Neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them shall be like unto them;
Yea, every one that trusteth in them. (Psalm 115:5–8)
What Scripture teaches us here, as in 1 John 3:2, is that you become what you worship. Romans 1 tells us that God gives people over to religious errors—which they then image through their physical bodies. What you revere is what you begin to resemble.
We also see this clearly in 2 Corinthians 3. Christians, too, become what they worship, being transformed into the image of God as we behold that image with unveiled face. Everyone becomes what they worship—for good or evil.
But if the face is intimately connected with the image of God, and with worship, then what do we become when we implicitly worship another god, by engaging in the religious pattern—the quasi-rite—of covering our faces? What will happen to us if we remove our faces? Silence our voices? Obliterate the image of God?