Wednesday, March 14, 2018


In the West, masks are mostly worn for protection, think of dust masks, ski masks, or surgical masks. But sometimes masks are worn to hide the identity of the wearer. Consider this definition of mask  from Encyclopedia Britannica [1].

Mask, a form of disguise or concealment usually worn over or in front of the face to hide the identity of a person and by its own features to establish another being. This essential characteristic of hiding and revealing personalities or moods is common to all masks.
Masks generally are worn with a costume, often so extensive that it entirely covers the body and obscures the wearer’s recognizable features. Fundamentally the costume completes the new identity represented by the mask.

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Origin Of Masks

Where did this practice of wearing masks come from? It appears that the origin of masks is in religious rites and ceremonies. Again from Encyclopedia Britannica [1].

African Tribal Masks
Many masks are primarily associated with ceremonies that have religious and social significance or are concerned with funerary customs, fertility rites, or the curing of sickness.

The mask, therefore, most often functions as a means of contact with various spirit powers, thereby protecting against the unknown forces of the universe by prevailing upon their potential beneficence in all matters relative to life.

In certain cultures, masks are worn to get in touch with the spirit world. This has been the case around the world, with Africa being the most well known, because African masks are sold as collectible art in the West. In order to contact the spirit world, the mask maker and the mask wearer must follow careful rules. The mask wearer is considered to be in direct association with the mask's spirit force, and can lose his own identity, assuming the identity of the mask, possibly undergoing a psychic change, even a trance. Some masks do represent evil spirits. Masks are worn in many religious ceremonies often in an attempt to "impersonate a supernatural power" - Masks: Reflections of Culture and Religion [2]. So in religious ceremonies involving masks, the mask and the wearer either represents a good spirit or an evil spirit.

Identity Masks

In the West, identity masks are only used at Halloween, Mardi Gras, or costume parties. The mask allows the wearer anonymity to release inhibitions. In other words, the mask wearer feels free to behave as they really want to, to do things under the cloak of anonymity. I'm pretty sure this doesn't bring out the virtue in people. Their real self is unmasked while wearing a mask. “A mask is not to disguise who you are but to show who you really are.” - Chloe Thurlow [3].

Of course, masks do not have to be physical. Many cultures have the mask of alcohol or other drugs, which lower inhibitions, that is unmasking the real self. Many people use a mask of anger to hide fear, weakness, shame, or embarassment - Psychology In Everyday Life [4]. Humor can also be used a a mask - Masking Depression With Humor [5]. In religion, tradition can be a mask - Behind the Mask of Religious Traditions [6]. Masks can work two ways, hiding the real self or revealing the real self, or perhaps who the wearer wants to be.

Masks and the Theater

Masks became a device of the theater in almost all cultures.

The mask as a device for theatre first emerged in Western civilization from the religious practices of ancient Greece.

Heavily coiffured and of a size to enlarge the actor’s presence, the Greek mask seems to have been designed to throw the voice by means of a built-in megaphone device and, by exaggeration of the features, to make clear at a distance the precise nature of the character. Moreover, their use made it possible for the Greek actors—who were limited by convention to three speakers for each tragedy—to impersonate a number of different characters during the play simply by changing masks and costumes.  Encyclopedia Britannica [1]

What were those Greek actors called? Hypokrites, from which we get the English word hypocrite.

Tragedy And Comedy Masks
The word hypocrite ultimately came into English from the Greek word hypokrites, which means “an actor” or “a stage player.” The Greek word itself is a compound noun: it’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as “an interpreter from underneath.” That bizarre compound makes more sense when you know that the actors in ancient Greek theater wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks.

It took a surprisingly long time for hypocrite to gain its more general meaning that we use today: “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”  - Merriam Webster [7]

Masks and the Bible 

Does the Bible have anything to say about masks? Indirectly. It does talk about hypocrites. In Matthew 23 alone, Jesus addresses the scribes and Pharisees seven times as hypocrites, "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, ..." - Matt 23:13,14,15,23,25,27,29. This is the Greek word hypokritai, the same word as the stage players of Greek theater. The scribes and Pharisees put on masks to appear righteous, not physical masks like other religions, but still a persona, Latin for "false face" - Masks: Reflections of Culture and Religion [2]. "So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." - Matt 23:28.

Putting on a mask to portray or become an evil spirit is simply bad.
Putting on a mask to appear righteous is also bad.

Portraying an evil spirit allows the evil side of a person to come out and be revealed.

Pretending righteousness allows a person to hide their evil side. This is the warning of  Matt 7:15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits." Sounds like a mask, a whole costume if you will. And this warning in 2Cor 11:14 "No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light." But remember, you will know them by their fruits, don't just listen to their words - 4 Ways to Identify a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing [8].

Are masks mentioned in the Old Testament? Possibly. In the story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), the people don't know what happened to Moses, they panic, and want a replacement for Moses, a replacement that isn't human and can serve as an intermediary between the people and God Himself. They had their chance to see and hear God directly at Mount Sinai, but they chose to have an intermediary instead.
Exod 32:1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, "Come, make us a god [elohim] who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.

Aaron fashions a golden calf. Rabbi David Fohrman [9] argues that "egel maseka" in Hebrew could be translated as molten calf or calf mask. The people wanted an intermediary that could survive a face to face encounter with God, like Moses did. The calf mask was a shield to protect them. Only it doesn't work that way, the mask is a perversion of the relationship with God, which must actually be face to face. The irony is that Moses ends up being the one who has to wear a veil (masveh) when talking to the people. Moses face shone after forty days on the mountain with God, and when he came down, the people were afraid of him, so he wore a veil, not because he wanted to hide his identity. It's not clear to me how long Moses wore the veil, perhaps for the entire 40 years Israel wandered in the desert.

[paragraph added Mar 21, 2018]

I missed an important connection between masks and the commandment that says - "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain" - Exodus 20:7. A reader commented that this verse is really talking about hypocrisy, that is taking God's name in vain is more than using swear words. He paraphrased it like this "You shall not just act like you are one of God's people; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that bears his name in vain." Taking or bearing God's name has to be sincere, not a mask worn for the praise of men.

Masks and the Christian

Anyone who desires to live a moral life, anyone who calls on the name of the Lord, ie. a Christian, is at risk for hypocrisy. I have to think that no one actively seeks out evil deliberately and consciously, but that evil is a result of "Every way of a man is right in his own eyes" - Prov 21:2. That is to say, everyone decides for themselves what is right and wrong. But Christians have given up that right to decide for themselves. The problem is our own weaknesses and habits. Everyone sins, and falls into hypocrisy, "a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.” Do we put the mask on and pretend the sin didn't happen, or do we approach God face to face (because He knows anyway), and repent, that is, turn away from our sin, and bring forth fruit in keeping with our repentance?

God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another. - William Shakespeare, Hamlet



1 comment:

  1. Very insightful and timely as this is a special season of introspection, examination, and repentance!