There may be no other more beautiful service of prayer and worship to God than the Orthodox Liturgy. For, as the emissaries to Prince Vladimir once said when describing it, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
Oh yes, so true. I can attest to that as well. It is a gift, it is a gem of praise, and through it we are as though transported to the very throne room of God. It was designed to give us a taste of heaven and it has done this for worshippers for many centuries, with very little innovation; it has remained unchanged for a very, very long time. Because, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say. It is based upon the visions and revelations of God’s Kingdom which are found in both the Old and New Testaments. Its intent is to be a manifestation of the heavenly realm here on earth, at least in some small way. Like Christ, who incarnated in the flesh on earth, the Liturgy is a type of incarnation as well; it puts flesh on worship and praise, and makes real the spiritual truths otherwise hidden from view.
The Orthodox Liturgy is also thoroughly biblical. In fact, one can find a scriptural reference for practically every aspect, every moment, everything that is said or sung from its beginning to its ending. All things have been taken into account, every detail has been thought about as it relates to our salvation so that it is a sublime experience. The church space is filled with icons which reflect the perfect beauty of Christ; lamps cast a soft glow of light that illuminates the cloud of witnesses surrounding worshippers. The altar is hidden at first, reminding us of our ancestor’s tragic fall from grace, but then the curtain is removed, revealing the glory prepared for us by Christ’s loving incarnation and His sacrificial love for us. Incense wafts up into the air, it is the prayers of the saints ascending to heaven. Everything is sung; it is like a choir of angels are in our midst. The priest, deacon, readers and servers all wear beautiful vestments, reminding us of the exquisite beauty of God’s Kingdom.
And then there are the masks that all of the faithful wear, to cover their faces and protect them from disease. Liturgy means the ‘work of the people’, it is the body of Christ working together to praise and worship God. So what is the meaning of this corporate donning of masks in the midst of our liturgical work? It is impossible to ignore, it has become a central feature or our worship—as well it should—because, as I’ve already spelled out, everything about the Liturgy has been considered, everything matters for our salvation, every detail weaves into the tapestry of its beauty, its theological prowess, and its representation of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Centuries have gone into making the Orthodox Liturgy the beautiful tradition that it is; it is biblical, evangelical and fully sacramental. While one might overlook the dress of an individual, one can’t ignore when the entire body as a whole adopts a new custom in the midst of the Liturgy; it has become an integral aspect of our work together. So, what can the wearing of masks mean in our Liturgical celebration of the saving power of Christ, and of His victory over death?
Is our mask-wearing a manifestation of the beauty of God; or of our own beauty as humans made in the image and likeness of our creator? Or is it the opposite; hiding the beauty of creation? Do these masks in any way supplement or augment the beauty of the Liturgy, as all the other aspects of it do? Should we embroider the masks, and consider them a new part of the vestments worn by our clergy? Can we make our peace with masks in the Liturgy by considering them as something akin to head-coverings? But, unlike head-coverings, we find no biblical basis for masks. Or should we consider them like the wings of the seraphim; “with two wings they cover their faces”? But we aren’t the seraphim, and masks are not wings; nor do masks represent wings. What do they represent, and how do they fit into the beautiful Liturgy?
Perhaps they don’t, and they never will; nor can they fit into the Liturgy. Despite our efforts to ignore them, to overlook them, to rationalize them, to accept them, masks are not biblical, nor evangelical, nor even sacramental; and they don’t add to the beauty of our worship, nor do they find any place in our traditions. Masks don’t represent anything about God’s Kingdom, and they don’t help to bring heaven down to earth. Nor do they help us understand God’s Kingdom, or His love for us. There is nothing catechetical about them. In truth, there is no place for masks in our beloved Liturgy. Especially not in our Liturgy.
Ritual and symbol have power; our Liturgy has sacramental power. The instruments employed in our rituals have meaning and importance. We have introduced a Trojan horse into our sacraments under the guise of health and safety, which manifests as masks, and is the antithesis of everything our Liturgy represents. We Orthodox love paradox and here is one, an irony: masks are purported to protect us from death, yet they can easily be seen as the symbolic representation of our very fear of death.
Christ is the ultimate victor over death, the beautiful Orthodox Liturgy is our shared work in praise and thankfulness of His victory, and our freedom from death’s snare. We are hard-pressed to honestly and faithfully incorporate masks into this program of praise and worship.