By Rev. Dr. Robert J. Archon, Ph.D.*
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. Some of the tragic problems of the world:
- 5 billion people live in the developing world, of which, 3 billion live on less than $2 per day
- 2 billion people have no access to electricity
- 80% of the world income is controlled by 15 % of world
- 70% of world is illiterate, and only 1% has a college education
- 52 million babies are killed in their mother’s womb through abortions every year
- 60 million people are infected with HIV, 95% in developing countries;
- 20 million have died from AIDS, which has left 30 million orphans
Such statistics reflect the evil in the world – the evil in the hearts of people. People create unjust situations, take advantage of others, and then show indifference to their suffering. Many people have adopted a closed mentality where they focus only on themselves and their own problems. They create a little world where they become the center, and everyone else is outside. This attitude of self-centered individualism is the new ideology of the modern world.
Wearing a mask displays true love of neighbor
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us into a new way of life that has brought fears and uncertainty. Has it brought blessings? A vision to see our own needs and the needs of others. Not only has an invisible enemy taken the lives of more than 125,000 people in the United States, but it also has forced millions of Americans into unemployment and created a firestorm of fear and anxiety about the future.
In the meantime, as we go about our daily lives trying to love God and love our neighbor, it is important that we do everything we can on a personal level to keep our part of the world as safe as possible during this global plague. We need only look at the spike in the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations since the loosening of social-distancing restrictions in some parts of the country to understand that we need to do our part to be good neighbors to each other. There are far too many unknowns about the virus itself, but this much we do know: Wearing a mask in public and keeping a safe distance from those outside of our immediate household, are true “acts of charity” toward our neighbor. Wearing a mask in public – and certainly at Sunday Liturgy – is a small act of charity and may well save lives. This is a question much more about care than about fear.
There is virtually no scientific disagreement that wearing a mask reduces the possibility of dispersing into the air particles that may contain the virus and also reduces the possibility of inhaling any particles from another person. As we have seen, many people who are infected with coronavirus are asymptomatic, which means they do not know they are sick and are capable of spreading the disease. Wearing a mask in public protects your neighbor in the grocery store, in the bank and in church. Admittedly, wearing a mask can be an irritation, but doing so is a small act of charity that we as Christians are called to offer out of love for God and neighbor. Far from being a sign of weakness, wearing a mask is a sign of strength, selfless love and prudence.
We are caring for our friends. In New Orleans, masking takes on a meaning all its own during Carnival. We hide our faces behind masks to become someone else for a day. No one seems to complain that breathing through a mask on Mardi Gras is a bit odd and cumbersome. How much more important is it now to mask – when we’re talking not about a pair of beads but about a life. We need to show we care. Please wash your hands. Please wear a mask. Please save a life. Look into your neighbor’s eyes, and a stranger’s eyes, with love. At the heart of Christianity is kinship, a sense of mutual connection and responsibility for one another. But just when our neighbors need it most, the new mandate of social distancing is challenging how we may normally practice kinship in times of crisis.
Wearing a Mask, an Act of Love
I hate wearing masks. I wear glasses so, I have to continually pinch the bridge of my nose to keep my exhalation from fogging up my glasses, but I’ve been wearing a mask anytime I’ve been in a public space since February 22nd, without fail. As a Priest have been in areas where persons with compromised health needed God’s care.
Countless experts continue to talk about the need for masks. The Mayo Clinic clearly states that masks shield the nose and mouth from others’ droplets, which is where the virus lives. It also prevents droplets from those potentially infected people. It’s simple, if we remove the barriers of entry from the disease, or at least reduce the risk of transmission, fewer people will get infected. There are those in our communities, in our workplaces, and in our churches who are more vulnerable than we may know to complications Covid-19 can cause. The Church is a hospital for the sick and there are those like her and others who are home and have compromised immune systems. You don’t always see those at greater risk, and wearing a mask to ensure you’re not infecting others is an act of mercy.
Compassion is rooted in Latin and literally means “to suffer with.” We have those in our community who suffer and Romans 15:1 tells us that “those that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak,” and 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” These are just a few examples, how many times throughout the Scriptures are we called to care for others, to show mercy, and to be compassionate? Refusing to wear a mask because of mild discomfort isn’t really suffering with our neighbors. If we are in better health, we ought to use it to serve those. Compassion and mercy are key aspects of our Christian faith, so much so that St. Basil tells us that we won’t find mercy if we don’t show mercy. Knowing the effects of this virus, not just death, but lifelong suffering ahead of many survivors should be enough of a reason for us to all wear masks. Why? Because we’re called to love! Christ instructs us that there is no greater commandment than to love God and love our neighbor; if we truly love our neighbor, how are we okay with the possibility of harming them? I am not. We are able to show the world that we care for others, we love our neighbors, we are compassionate towards our more vulnerable citizens. We are able to be shining examples of Christ’s light. There are those who are uncomfortable with those who don’t wear masks. There are those who know they are more susceptible to coronavirus and its dangers. When Christians refuse to wear masks, what are they telling those people? We are free, but that freedom is found in our willingness and ability to serve one another in love.
We wear seatbelts, take medication, undergo medical treatments, wear sunscreen, put on life jackets, have alarm systems, keep smoke detectors. None of these comment on our faith. Taking medication isn’t an attack on the systems God put in our lives. These are things we do as good stewards on this earth. We do these things to keep the beautiful gift of life and health God has bestowed upon us. And it’s something the Apostles took seriously as well. For me, wearing a mask is a point of strengthening my faith. When I wear it, I’m reminded of those around me who are suffering, and I try to suffer with them. It’s humbling to receive ridicule for wearing a mask (and was a good point for me to check my level of frustration with others and pray for them). I wear it to protect myself but also as a very tangible way to love my neighbor. This mask I wear is a cross we bear right now, a visible, tangible sign that we all love one another.
How do we in the Orthodox Church relate to the current public health situation? How do we respond to the fact that many states have recently given orders for wearing masks in public and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also now issued a call that everyone in the United States wear a mask in public, basing this call on a growing body of reported evidence that shows masking reduces the chance of person to person infection and so slows the spread of the virus through communities. As many of us have experienced in one way or another, this has become a personal, emotional, political, and, in the realm of religion, including in Orthodox Christian parishes, even quasi-theological, issue as much as, and often more than, it has been a matter of public health. The endurance of suffering in sickness and in treatment can train a person in virtue and lead a person to gratitude for recovered health, but St. Basil teaches that the very fact of illness and health itself has been given as a model for understanding the whole dynamic of spiritual life. In response to this question, I would submit that anything I can reasonably do to preserve or improve the health of my neighbor is an act of love that gathers all the particularities of the specific circumstance in which I act on behalf of another and opens them to the presence of the Kingdom of God, to the presence of Christ. This includes something like the preventative medical practice of wearing a mask to limit my potential for spreading this virus to others and so endangering them, a virus I may be carrying unknowingly for a time before getting sick myself. This is not only justified for the sake of physical health and therefore an act of kindness and love to my neighbor; it is also a profound general expression of self-restraint and even sacrifice, however minor, for the good of another. Having said that, we in the Orthodox Church should be extremely sensitive to the notion of covering a face, we for whom the faces of Christ, the saints, and one another are our constant experience of revelation. But neither should we dismiss the call to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ, to do nothing, insofar as it is in our power, that would wound our neighbor or cause him to stumble. We do this not out of fear or out of an obsession over physical health, but out of love for our neighbor and care for her well-being, physical and spiritual. To disregard my neighbor’s body is to sin against the depths of my neighbor’s spirit. Perhaps this remedy of covering myself to protect others has been given, yes, to protect them from possible disease, but just as profoundly to heal me of my own blindness and carelessness through the hard discipline of covering my face and enduring the covering of others for a season. It is to our shame if the world shows itself to be more willing to take on a minor trial for the sake of the well-being of others than are those who claim to follow Christ. So, this life of ours outside Paradise must be one of caring for one another, of doing what we can do for the sake of one another. All of our actions for one another are limited and relative, they do not guarantee anything of themselves, but they all, when done in love, have within them the seeds of redemption.
Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
*Presiding Priest – St. Athanasius the Great Greek Orthodox Church – Arlington, MA, Professor of Leadership and Parish Administration at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology