While debates continue over the health benefits of masking, one thing is certain: Masking engenders a more neurotic society. Neurosis describes mental, emotional, or even physical reactions that are drastic and irrational. In a word, neurosis is an anxiety disorder. And we are anxious. We are anxious about new and ever-changing laws; anxious (suspicious!) of one another; and anxious about death born on every cough and proliferating on every surface.
With our faces hidden from one another, our ability to adjudicate our status or standing with each other is lost. We have found that the eyes don’t tell the whole story. The entire face is needed to do so.
Last week I was in an airport and within earshot when another passenger approached the ticketing agents to query about his seating. This gentleman feigned a bit of humor which, if he were unmasked, would have been communicated with a rueful smile and enlightened countenance. Instead, his naturally knitted brow conveyed critical displeasure. Clearly offended, the agents recoiled, prompting the passenger to quickly unmask to reveal his true heart in the matter. His was a friendly face.
Each of us could convey dozens of similar stories, as well as the sense that we are on edge with one another — ignoring one another more and more. Hidden behind masks, we neither greet one another as regularly nor interact as frequently. All of this has contributed to a profound sense of societal alienation, loneliness, and anxiety, making for a neurotic existence. Hence, the alarming spike in alcoholism, drug over-dosing, and suicides this year. Where do we stand with one another? We don’t know because faces are hidden.
In a time like this, the church does well to remind the world that God is unmasked, indeed, that God has unmasked himself in the person of Jesus. His is a friendly face. And knowing that God stands fully and irreversibly unmasked in Christ Jesus should quell our anxiety about where we stand with him and, by extension, spill over into our concerted efforts to be as “unmasked” as possible in our love for one another.
It wasn’t always so. Throughout most of human history, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was impenetrably masked. While our first parents walked with God in Eden, following humanity’s collective fall into sin, God withdrew his face, leaving the barrier of the law to safeguard his holiness. The heavens became, as it were, a brass ceiling.
The gracious face of God must be found in the gospel of salvation not the law of condemnation.
As in Eden, beholding the face of the LORD connotes favor, but looking upon the face of the Lord is not permitted while in our unclean, sinful state. In fact, it’s not possible given the spiritual blindness of the descendants of Adam (Deut 29:4; Ps 119:18; Isa 35:5; 42:16; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor 4:3-4; Eph 5:8; 1 Pet 2:9). Even Moses, who longed to see God’s face, was warned: “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). The closest Moses came was to catch a glimpse of divine glory as it diminished from view. In that Exodus 34 theophany, the revelation given to Moses emphasizes an auditory disclosure about God’s character, not something visual (34:5-8).
During the Exodus, the Creator of heaven and earth came as near to sinful humanity as possible — his face shrouded in dark clouds and smoke atop Mt. Sinai while dispensing the Decalogue. Clearly, the favorable countenance of God was not to be found in the law. The law exposed sin, accused the sinner, and sentenced death to transgressors: No one shall see his face and live; no, not as long as sin and the just accusation of the law stood between sinners and the one and only God. If the face of God signaled his favor, then the masking of God’s face by the law bespeaks of judgment (Lev 20:3, 6; 26:17; Jer 44:11; Ezek 14:8; 15:7).
And yet, at that same time, we are encouraged, even admonished by the Lord to seek his face: “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’” (Ps 27:8). Moses was correct to pursue the face of God because in his face, there is favor or grace. The psalmist says as much when he declares: “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Ps 80:7). Both Moses and the psalmist recognize that the face of God was something bound up with the promised offspring of the woman (Gen 3:15). In other words, the gracious face of God must be found in the gospel of salvation not the law of condemnation. It’s in the promises of God, not the precepts that we find “God our Savior.”
As humanity longed to see the face of God, so too the LORD longed to unmask it, that is, he desired to make himself known in his gospel, far above his self-revelation in the law: “And I will not hide my face anymore from them, then I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD” (Ezek 39:29).
“Then”! “Then,” when? All of Scripture had been straining toward this answer: When the offspring of the virgin would come down from heaven, then God at last would be with us and for us. We would see his face and live.
Seeing the face of God is only possible when the ‘mask of the law’ fulfills its purpose in the Coming One. This one would have to mediate the justice and holiness of God by dealing with sin once and for all by (1) fulfilling all the righteousness of the law on our behalf and (2) satisfying the penalty for unrighteousness on our behalf. Only then could the divine mask of the law be removed to reveal the continuance of the LORD. This mediator would have to be one who could see the face of God and live and in living, intercede on our behalf. “Not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46).
At the apex of human anxiety, “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption of sons” (Gal 4:4-5). The face of God is seen on the man Jesus of Nazareth, and this becomes the gospel proclamation for all the world: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). His face was seen and, indeed, is seen amidst this day of grace. His is a friendly face.
That Jesus exhibits before all the world the unveiled and friendly face of God is clear from the testimony Jesus himself when Philip expressed the desire of all mankind,“Lord, show us the [face of] Father, and it will satisfy us,” to which Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8). No text, however, may be more comprehensive in its attestation to seeing the gracious countenance of God in the face of Jesus than 1 John 1:1-4.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with ur eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heart we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship [better, “communion”] with us; and indeed our fellowship [communion] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
God dwells in Jesus’ body, so that his face—full of grace and truth—reveals the nature and disposition of the LORD toward us.
The ability to “see” God unmasked in Christ requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit — what the Bible calls regeneration: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [i.e., regenerated] he cannot see the kingdom of God… unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5). The ability of “seeing” the kingdom of God or, synonymously, the reign of God in Jesus or, simply, the gracious face of the Lord in Jesus, is a result of the Holy Spirit applying the word of gospel upon sinners. Martin Luther said as much when commenting on the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
This regeneration is attributed to the word and action of God. It is immediately associated with Holy Baptism, where God speaks and acts the word of justification that renders one a new creation. The result is that we should “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6).
Finally, in seeing his face, we are transformed in our love for others — we are “unmasked” from the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches. Even now, amidst a neurotic society that reinforces anxiousness with every news report, those justified freely by the grace of God, through the gift of faith, because of Jesus of Christ, can see the face of the Lord and reflect that friendly face back to others in our own “unmasking” as the children of God (1 John 2:3). That wonderful experience finds its fruition on the Last Day when, unhampered by the flesh and our fallen nature, we partake of the beatific vision. And it is this face-to-face vision that will thoroughly and perfectly transformed us: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Until that day, let us not grow weary of seeking his countenance and sharing his reflection with our own faces as God’s vaccine for societal neurosis.