Several people came to church Sunday whom I hadn’t seen in a while. They wore surgical masks to protect from spreading COVID, so it took me a little while to recognize some of them. It’s interesting to reflect on how the past two years of mask-wearing has made us develop some new techniques for identifying each other. The masks make it a little more difficult, but we find alternate routes to recognition.

This made me think of the tradition of the Masked Ball that has been portrayed as part of European social life since at least the 15th Century. As depicted in historical novels and movies, these events gave people a chance to act as incognito among some of their acquaintances, ranging from close friends to social rivals to potential lovers.¬†They pretty much all recognized each other, but by pretending they didn’t, they felt freer to express some attitudes and actions that might not otherwise have been considered appropriate. In other words, they gave themselves permission to misbehave a bit. Each of them had bought into the unwritten rules of the Masked Ball — “I don’t recognize you, and you don’t recognize me” (Wink, Wink!) — so the next morning they were able to pretend that nothing naughty had happened.

Forgive me for connecting this with what sometimes happens in church. Some worship services are like Masked Balls where everybody hides behind a covering of hypocrisy. We interact with each other, saying all the nice, churchy words we believe good Christians should say. But behind our masks we’re thinking about our strained family relationships, recurring sins that constantly overwhelm us, regrets for acts of kindness we’ve failed to give to hurting people near us or vows of vengeance against people whom we should have forgiven long ago. We’re a mess! But instead of exposing our hurts to sisters and brothers who might become agents of God in bringing healing and hope, we shut them out with our fake “It’s-all-okay” smiles. We’re so busy straightening our own mask, we aren’t able to see past our friend’s mask that’s slipped down because of the frustration, fear and pain of life.

If we could all just take off the masks . . . Okay, you first. No? Then both at the same time: One, Two, Three . . . No fair, you peeked!

— Pastor George Van Alstine