Masquerade

Since early times, masks have been used by human groups for various purposes. Indigenous groups have used masks in dramatic portrayals, often of a religious significance. Hollywood perpetuates a myth that masked priests portrayed gods to fool their audiences. Rather, indigenous audiences know that the masked performers merely represent supernatural beings; however, those beings are often thought to be present in a mystical way while they are being portrayed by their priests.

In the Middle Ages and into modern times, Christians have continued to produce Passion Plays, lives of the saints, and other dramatic presentations of religious significance. Rarely, though, do Christian performances rely on masks or assume a mystical presence of Christ and the saints. Instead, masks have been diverted among Europeans and North Americans to entertainment. Partygoers assume masks and costumes as part of their revelry. European traditions associate masks and costumes with Carnival, a pre-Lenten celebration also called Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday. Carnival is represented in such productions as An American in Paris and Phantom of the Opera. In North America, masks and costumes are associated more with Halloween, a time when children go door-to-door wearing masks and costumes and asking for treats, while adults frequent holiday parties in similar outfits of masks and costumes.

Aside from holiday parties, masks are largely associated with crimes and with crimefighters. In the movies (and sometimes in real life), robbers wear masks to disguise their identity while robbing banks, stores, stagecoaches, and homes. But many famous crimefighters, from the Lone Ranger to Batman, also wear masks to hide their identity. Their success capturing criminals and foiling crimes somehow depends upon remaining disguised, hiding their true identity behind their masks.

Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century scientists began to understand the role of one-celled creatures (bacteria, or germs) in causing illnesses, including infections, in humans, other animals, and plants. Washing hands and wearing gloves and masks became increasingly common in medical circles to reduce the chance of infection. Similar precautions have proved effective against viruses, which are even smaller than bacteria, but which often travel in drops of moisture produced by bodily fluids. Masks and gloves are familiar in hospitals and other medical facilities. Early in the twenty-first century, medical masks appeared more on city streets in east Asian cities as an attempt to curb various infectious diseases that had appeared in Asian populations.

This year masks have been recommended in the United States and most other countries to combat the spread of COVID-19. More than any other preventative measure, masks have become an emotional symbol of the virus crisis, of attempts to combat the virus, and of government overreach into the lives of citizens. Several months ago, wearing masks in certain situations was one strategy to battle the disease—others were washing hands frequently and thoroughly, avoiding or preventing large gatherings of people, remaining home as much as possible, and refraining from touching one’s face, especially eyes and nose and mouth, with one’s hands.

Washing hands frequently and not touching one’s face have always been recommended to reduce the spread of colds, influenza, and other diseases. Arguably, effective pursuit of these two practices could make other hygienic practices, including masks, redundant and unneeded. Instead, masks have become the focal point of discussions (often heated) about disease prevention. Closely related to the practice of wearing masks to prevent disease are questions about the government’s role in keeping citizens safe from harm—questions that have focused, in the past, on seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, sneeze guards over salad bars, and the like. Each episode reflects are larger social and political debate about freedom and safety, about individual choices and compassion for one’s neighbors.

At one extreme, some people are convinced that “masks save lives,” that refusing to wear masks demonstrates callous unconcern for other people, and that the government should require all citizens to wear masks and should punish all citizens who refuse to wear masks. At the other extreme, some people view mask requirements as the government’s greatest experiment in controlling the thinking of a population since we were all persuaded to change our clocks twice a year to “save daylight.” Many people fall into a middle category: they are willing to wear masks when required by an employer or a host (including restaurant managers, store owners, and congregations) but do not wear masks at home, in the car, or when walking outdoors.

Some stores post signs saying that they require masks but take no action to enforce that requirement. Others have their employees to ask people to leave if they are not wearing masks. Some restaurants require customers to wear masks while walking to their tables but allow them to remove their masks at their tables. Others have seating spaced widely enough that masks are not needed in the building. Some congregations ask all worshipers to wear masks, others make masks optional, and still others have some services when masks are requested of all and others when masks are optional. Businesses and churches seek ways to meet the needs of the largest number of people while offending or inconveniencing the smallest number of people possible.

As a few people are disturbed by seeing spiders or snakes or clowns, so a few people are disturbed by seeing masks—especially by seeing groups of people wearing masks. Little has been done to respond to these people’s concerns. A search on a popular search engine for “fear of masks” led to articles about helping children not fear wearing masks, but no acknowledgement that adults may also fear masks. Likewise, searching for articles (and they have been published) indicating that masks are not helpful and may even be harmful in overcoming the virus crisis leads only to articles attacking opponents of masks and offering arguments in defense of masks and of requirements to wear masks.

I’m in the middle position, willing to wear a mask if it makes someone else feel safe, happy to go without a mask if no one else expects me to wear one. I am concerned, though, that our trusted sources of information are leaning toward one extreme and away from the other. The more the opinion-shapers of our land promote the wearing of masks and disparage those who disagree, the more I wonder what other goals these opinion-makers are pursuing: perpetuating a climate of fear and worry, separating people from one another by encouraging us all to hide our faces from each other, giving us a petty reason to argue and disagree and fight while more important issues are swept under the rug. More than health and the control of disease may be at work when it comes to masks. If that is the case, the year 2020 may be an even larger watershed than we have already noticed. J.

A week late, but I wanted to get it right

Jerry was driving home about ten o’clock Friday night when he spotted a young woman walking on the gravel next to the highway. Her thumb was pointed in the classic hitchhiker position as she walked. Jerry was not in the habit of stopping for hitchhikers, but this young woman seemed harmless. It was late at night on a cool evening, too late and too cold for her to be walking alone, Jerry thought. He slowed to a stop next to her, and she opened the car door and hopped in.

“Thanks,” she said to him. “My name’s Clairisse. I live at 304 Pine Street. Hey, I appreciate the ride.”

“No problem,” Jerry said as he accelerated onto the highway. He knew the neighborhood; Pine Street was in the older part of town, about two miles away. He had no reservation about taking her there.

Jerry glanced at her while he drove. She had long straight blonde hair, parted at the center of her head. A flower-patterned headband encircled her head. She had sky-blue eyes; and when she smiled, she showed straight even teeth. A brightly-colored shirt, blue jeans that flared below the knees, and sandals completed her outfit. Jerry reflected that Halloween had just passed; she might easily be dressed as a hippy for a costume party.

She gazed out the window, drumming her fingers on the handrest of the car door. Jerry struggled to think of something to say to her, but nothing came to mind.  All too soon, he was turning onto Pine Street. He stopped in front of #304, a two-story house that looked as though it had seen better days, although it was hard to be sure in the dark. “Thanks again,” Clairisse chirped at him, and in a trice she was out of the car and headed toward the house. Being a gentleman, Jerry waited until he had seen her open the door and enter the house safely. Then he sighed, shrugged his shoulders once, and drove home.

Saturday morning as he got into his car, he noticed something white between the passenger seat and the car door. Pulling it out, he saw that it was a knitted sweater, the kind that buttons up the front. He had not noticed the sweater Friday night, but Clairisse could have been holding it when she got into the car; she could have dropped it when she left the car. Remembering her address, he decided to return the sweater on his way to work that noon.

Jerry stopped his car on the street in front of 304 Pine Street. He carried the sweater to the door and rang the doorbell. He waited for a few seconds, breathlessly picturing the lovely Clairisse. He rang the bell again. Finally, a tall elderly gentleman opened the door. “Can I help you?” he asked Jerry.

Jerry held up the sweater. “Could you give this to Clairrisse?” he asked. Thinking that the man might be her grandfather, he added, “I gave her a ride home last night, and she left it in my car.”

Slowly, the gentleman took the sweater. “Yes, this belonged to Clairisse,” he affirmed. “You’re not the first young man who brought it back. I suppose you should know, though, that my daughter Clairisse died fifty years ago this weekend.” He didn’t say any more. He just stood there in the doorway, holding the sweater.

“Oh,” said Jerry. “I see.” He could think of nothing more to say. “I’d better be going,” he added, and he turned and walked back to his car.

The old man closed the door. Slowly he ascended the staircase to the second floor. Stopping, he knocked on a bedroom door. The door flew open. Clairisse was standing there.

He handed her the sweater. “It’s back again,” he told her.

“Did you get much of a reaction when you told him I was dead?’ she asked, taking the sweater.

“Not much,” he replied. Shaking his head, he commented, “I don’t see why you keep doing this.”

“It’s fun!” she exclaimed. She gave the gentleman a smile and closed the bedroom door.

Discussion questions:

  1. This short story is based on a common urban legend called the Vanishing Hitchhiker. What details does the author add to the story?
  2. How would you react if someone told you that a passenger who rode in your car last night had been dead for fifty years?
  3. In the song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” why does the captain want Dinah to blow her horn. Being that she’s in the kitchen, do you think the horn signals mealtime? Or what?
  4. Did you notice that the surprise ending to the story does not clarify whether Clairisse is a playful girl or is actually a ghost after all? Explain.

J.

The Festival of All Saints

An on-going argument asks whether the world has stolen Christmas from the Church or the Church first claimed December 25 from worldly celebrations. No question needs to be asked about the Festival of All Saints (November 1). This festival clearly was established by Christians to replace a pagan holiday held in the middle of autumn every year.

Some (not all!) ancient European cultures marked a night half-way between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Days are getting shorter, nights are getting longer, and both are getting colder, so thoughts of death are in peoples’ minds. Some European people believed that the spirits of the dead could wander the earth on this night; others thought of witchcraft or of various monsters set loose for the Night of the Dead. Treats were offered to these malevolent beings to bribe them, asking that they not play tricks on the living. Clearly, many Halloween customs have their origin in this preChristian observance.

Christian missionaries sought to counter this superstition with a holiday that would remind believers that Jesus has conquered death and the grave, that evil and darkness cannot prevail against him or his Church. Therefore, November 1 was designated “All Saints Day.” It was meant to be an autumnal echo of the Festival of the Resurrection, or Easter Sunday, that occurs every year in the springtime. As Christians remember the saints, we also remember who changed them from sinners to saints and who shares with them a victory over evil and death. Like every other Christian celebration, the Festival of All Saints is about Jesus Christ.

Saints are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They are people who trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Some saints are alive on earth, battling tribulation with the power of the Gospel. Other saints are with Jesus in Paradise, free from the struggles of this life, awaiting the day of resurrection. When Jesus appears in glory, all the dead will be raised—not undead zombies, but living beings, healed from all their former sicknesses and injuries. All will stand before the throne of Christ, and he will welcome the saints into the new and perfect creation. Those who did not want to be saints will be sent away to share the punishment of Satan and the other fallen angels.

During this Festival of All Saints (which some congregations observe on the first Sunday of November, not necessarily November 1), Christians remember the saints. We remember Biblical saints from both Testaments, all those who trusted God’s promises and were his people. We remember saints from more recent times—writers, teachers, reformers, hymnwriters, missionaries, and others who contributed to the life of the Church. We remember saints we have known—pastors and Sunday School teachers who told us about Jesus when we were young, as well as family and friends who have died and are buried. All these saints we will see on the Day of the Lord, the Resurrection Day that is coming.

But for Christians living in the tribulation, this is also our day. By the power of God’s Word, we also are saints. We celebrate the promises that we believe. We celebrate the gifts that come from Christ’s accomplishments—gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and victory over all that is evil. While we don’t ask the saints in Paradise to pray for us or to work any favors for us, we do support one another in this world with our prayers and our encouragement. We look forward to a perfect world while we strive to do what good we can in this present world.

Some Christian congregations struggle against Halloween. They have autumn festivals or trunk and treat events to draw people away from Halloween observances. Lutherans, of course, have Reformation Day: the anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the eve of All Saints Day. But other Christians embrace Halloween. They see the festival as one more way to celebrate Christ’s victory over all that is evil. We do not need to fear ghosts, zombies, or other monsters. We do not even need to fear Satan. We can laugh at him, saying, “All evil has been crushed, and Christ our Lord reigns forever.” The Festival of All Saints gives us confidence that Christ has won and evil has lost forever. J.

The Festival of All Saints

The early people of Europe, both Celtic and Germanic, observed a holiday roughly halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Known by various names, this holiday was inspired by the fact that nights were getting longer, days were getting shorter, and nature was shutting down to prepare for the winter. Dark thoughts inspired images of ghosts, goblins, witches, and other monsters and fearful beings. Christian missionaries working among the Celtic and Germanic people countered with a Christian holiday, the Festival of All Saints. With this festival, Christians remind themselves and others that we do not need to fear ghosts and monsters, that the spirits of believers who have died are safely with Jesus in Paradise, and that the work of Jesus has conquered evil in all its forms.

A message being passed around Facebook claims that the Christian holiday is older, that Christians were celebrating the Festival of All Saints on the first of November long before Halloween became an observance on the thirty-first of October. Technically, this is true, since Christians were using the Julian calendar of the Roman Empire while Celts and Germans were still using a lunar calendar. Only rarely would their annual festival come the night before All Saints’ Day, but the festival of darkness and evil beings was being observed in Europe long before Christians began the Festival of All Saints.

Who was first in marking this time of year does not matter as much as whose observance is more significant. Let the creation of All Saints’ Day be a Christian response to the pagan observances that have become Halloween. The message about all the saints is still more meaningful than any message about ghosts and goblins. All Saints’ Day is a reminder of Easter on the far side of the calendar. Jesus is still risen, and all who trust in him are still rescued from death and the grave and are protected from every kind of evil.

Who, then, is a saint? Every believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is a saint. Peter and Paul wrote letters addressed to saints, not addressed to spirits with Christ in Paradise, but addressed to Christians still living on the earth. It is customary on All Saints’ Day to think of those saints who have died and who are waiting for the Day of Resurrection; but for Christians alive on earth, this is our day too. We remember that we are saints, not because of what we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

Saints are holy people. Anything that is holy is the property of God. God’s name is holy, because it belongs to him (and Christians pray that God’s name be holy, or hallowed, among us). Times set aside for worship are holy times, because they belong to God. Places where Christians gather for worship are holy, because they belong to God. When Moses stood on holy ground—ground that belonged to God—he was told to remove his shoes so that common everyday dirt would not be tracked onto God’s holy dirt.

Holy people are also meant to be different from other people. Holy people are meant to be reminders of Jesus. We are different from other people because we love God and try to obey his commands. We are different from other people because we love our neighbors and seek to help them for the glory of God. Christians do not always succeed at this business of holiness. If we had to make ourselves holy, we would be total failures. But we do not make ourselves holy. Jesus makes us holy by his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus makes us holy through the gifts of his Church. Jesus makes us holy by claiming us as his own people.

What then of Halloween? Christians are free to observe Halloween or not as it suits them, provided they do not offend one another by their celebrations. Christians who want to give out free candy on Halloween are free to do so; those who do not wish to share candy do not have to share. Christian parents can send their children out to receive free candy or can find other things for them to do on that night. For some Christians, Halloween is a grim reminder of the evil from which they have been freed, and they would rather not think about evil at all. For other Christians, Halloween is a time to laugh at evil, our defeated enemy, and to celebrate the freedom we have received through Christ.

Christmas trees and Easter eggs and Halloween jack-o-lanterns might distract some people from the promises of Christ, but they are also fitting reminders of the promises of Christ. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and therefore anything in creation can be used to celebrate his love. Have a blessed Festival of All Saints this weekend, and also a happy Halloween. J.