catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 20 :: 2005.11.04 — 2005.11.17


The masks we wear

The following is a message given recently at Extended Grace, a Christian faith community in Grand Haven, Michigan.

What do you like best about Halloween? Dressing up? Putting on a mask? What do you like about wearing a mask?

There are all kinds of different masks. You know, long before masks were used for parties, they had an important place in ritual and ceremony. John Grostic has allowed us to borrow some of his masks today. John lived for a while in Africa and these are some of the masks he brought home with him.

The mask on the wall is a Poro mask and this one is a Bundu. The Poro is the mask of the men in society and the Bundu is the mask of the female. They are used by the Mende people for both their law and their religion. During certain festivals people will wear these masks and Poro and Bundu will come out to dance.

They are also used in ceremonies for boys and girls when they reach puberty and become adults in the eyes of their people. The boys get military instruction from Poro and the girls get instruction on marriage during 3 months of isolation in the forest from Bundu.

The Mende also believe in a creator god, Ngewo, who they never make a picture or a mask of.

Let?s take a closer look at the Bundu helmet. It is worn over the head. The shape of the helmet attracts the river spirit. It has an alaborate headdress because a woman who did not cover her head would be considred crazy or immoral. The rings around the neck represent prosperity or beauty. The Bundu spirit is believed to live in the waters of streams, rivers and lakes and the neck rings also symbolisze the ripples made by the spirit as she breaks the surface of the water.

These masks can have very strong control over people?s lives. So can other kinds of masks. Some masks are good and some aren?t so good. You?ll be hearing about a lot of different kinds of masks tonight.

Two years ago Alex came home from school and told me he was going to the Halloween Party the next day as Captain Underpants. ?I don?t think so,? I said. ?I don?t think the school would approve.? ?It?s okay Mom!? he assured me, ?Miss Fed said it would be alright as long as I wear the underwear over my clothes.?

So the next morning, my 8-year-old puts on an old red superman cape around his shirtless back and pulls a pair of underwear over his shorts. Then be proceeds to stuff and shove his pants into the underwear so they bulge all around him and then strikes a mighty fine Captain Underpants pose.

Now, I admit I thought he?d back out, get embarrassed and change his mind. But despite my offers to rescue him from this situation, when the bus arrived he jumped out of my car and marched proudly up the steps without a glance back. He BECAME Captain Underpants. And I?m not really sure whether THAT Alex materialized because of the mask and costume he put on or because he was finally allowed to take off the mask and costume ?I? wanted him to wear.

All of us wear masks. There are the masks we wear because we choose to. There are the masks that are thrust upon us. A mask can be something we hide behind, or something that allows us to be more fully who we really are. There are masks that we wear with the same ritual as the Mende, and there are the masks we casually put on and take off without much thought at all.

In our scripture passages today we have two stories of people and their masks. One is about Tamar.

Tamar has been married to Judah?s son Er, but he dies before she has a child. According to the custom of the day, the brother-in-law was required to fill in for the missing husband in order to father a male descendant. This would perpetuate the brother?s name and inheritance and also provide for the widow?s well being. So Judah sends his son Onan to Tamar to get her pregnant. Onan, however, knows that this won?t be his child, so Tamar becomes victim of coitus interuptus as he spills his semen on the ground. Yahweh is so mad that Onan also dies. Judah knows that he should send Shelah to Tamar next, but he?s afraid at this point for the welfare of his own kids and so he leaves her to wait?

A childless widow, abandoned by her father-in-law?patiently, endlessly she waits?

Until she discovers that Judah is coming to town?and then this timid woman explodes into action! Quickly she tears off her mourning clothes and dresses up like a hooker. Down to the city gates she goes to get a peak at her father-in-law and what does she discover? That he?s been lying to her. That Shelah is old enough to marry and yet she remains a childless widow.

So she gets into her character and when Judah asks her to let him ?come in to her? (yes, that means exactly what it sounds like it means), she agrees. This might be her chance to finally have a child?but she isn?t going to be stupid about it. So she asks for a security deposit and Judah happily hands over the seal he wears around his neck on a cord to sign documents and his walking stick and?well?he went in to her.

Later he sends someone to pay off his debt, raising the status of the women he has been with to a ?temple prostitute? ?presumably to make his behavior more acceptable?and is told there is none in the town. So Judah lets the whole thing go so he won?t be made a fool of.

Three months later Judah gets word that Tamar is pregnant as a result of whoredom. The next decision for Judah is an easy one. Take her out and burn her to death. Stoning would have been in order normally, but really bad cases of adultery called for fire. But the wise woman Tamar says, ?Tell Judah these things belong to the father of my baby!? ?and lo and behold?Judah sees the light!

Tamar is not only released from her death sentence but Judah even says, ?She is more right than I.? She is more right than I. This is an amazing sentence and it is more so the more you consider it. She?the woman, the one who dressed up like a prostitute and tricked me into fathering her child?she is more right than I. It is a question of keeping a promise, living by the covenant. And Tamar, using a mask and a costume, forced into this act of deception is recorded in the Holy Scripture as Righteous.

Tamar would give birth to twins and one of the twins, Perez, would be a direct ancestor to King David. In fact, in the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew specifically lists Tamar?even though it is highly unusual to include women in these lists. Tamar?s act of bravery and cunning, in the midst of Judah?s failure to keep his promise, ensures that the ultimate covenant promise will be fulfilled?a promise that Judah himself had endangered.

A covenant promise eventually leads to Jesus addressing the crowds on behalf of another woman caught in adultery. This time we don?t know what has motivated the woman?s actions. We don?t know why she put on this costume and played this particular role. But we do know this?although she was told not to do it again, she was not condemned for her action. Jesus, being called upon to act as judge and to pronounce the sentence of death by stoning, demonstrates compassion and forgiveness. The Righteous One, in refusing to follow the letter of the Law of Moses even to deal with this obvious transgression, reshapes the very definition of righteousness.

In both of these stories there are the crowds. Crowds can be very frightening things especially when they consist of a gathering of people who believe their righteous duty is to kill offenders of the law. They show up with kindling wood or stones, ready to carry out God?s will on earth by whatever means are deemed most appropriate to the occasion. It is clear to them who is right and who is not. They wear the masks of righteousness and high standards and moral values.

And it is these masks that Jesus sees through and strips away. Are you really so superior to this woman? Are you really sure that in her situation you wouldn?t have done the exact same thing? Are you really so perfect that you haven?t committed your own acts of greed or selfishness or destruction? Are you really as righteous as you pretend to be in front of each other?

Jesus sees the masks and calls the people on the illusion they try to claim. But the real miracle of the story is that these individuals, once challenged, are actually able to see for themselves the mask of their self-deception.

Some of our masks harm other people, some of them harm us. And only when we can put them aside and look at ourselves honestly can we claim the righteousness that Jesus tells us is legitimately ours?not because we pretend to be something we are not?but because we know our inability to do anything without the love of God working within us.

And when we can claim that truth, we also find a whole new usefulness for masks?not to disguise our true identity, but to allow us to enter into a more caring and authentic relationships with others.

For there are also masks we wear out of respect. Knowing we are flawed creatures we know the damage we would inflict if we shared every thought and impulse we have. Have you ever been with someone who is brutally, caustically ?honest? all of the time? In the movie Liar, Liar, the character played by Jim Carey is unable to discern the right place, the right time, and the right people to share his thoughts with. He hurts the people around him, friends, family and complete strangers.

Masks help us to be appropriate and to set safe and healthy boundaries. I don?t talk to my mother the same way I talk to my husband. I don?t act the same way with my kids than I do with my boss. Different relationships pull something different out of me. And they should. These masks are not like opaque wooden objects that block us out, but more like colored transparencies that allow our own face, our true self, to shine at different times through a slightly different lens.

No one, we are told, can see God?s face and live. None of us can really see into the depth of all God is and survive. And so it is that even God wears a mask in coming into this world. What else is incarnation but God putting on a human mask in order to be able to interact directly with you and with me?

And what are we but the masks God wears? God puts us on and acts through us. We bring God?s mercy and grace into this world. We bring God?s compassion to those in need. We become the movement of God?s hands and God?s feet. You and me. Each of us a different colored transparency through which the true nature of God shines brilliantly through.

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