Taking everyone at face value

‘Can archdeacons go to heaven?’ was a question that exercised medieval minds because it was this rank of the clergy – between the parish clergy and the bishop – which dealt with financial matters. 

Today’s archdeacons remain concerned with matters of finance and buildings but I hope that the current Archdeacon of Hastings – whose area of responsibility covers much of East Sussex – makes the heavenly cut when the time comes.

I recently heard him give a very thoughtful talk about the importance of the human face. As he pointed out, this has literally been masked for the past 18 months and I cannot be the only person who has sometimes had difficulty in recognising someone. 

Our faces are literally unique, to use that much mis-used word, and can tell us so much about a person. They can betray our true feelings even when we try to hide them and so we talk about the need to ‘keep a straight face’ or whether it’s easy to ‘read’ someone’s face. We might think that someone’s face told us their true feelings about something even when they are telling us something different.

Faces can tell us about someone’s character, although Mona Lisa remains enigmatic.

I recall spending some time in Hastings Contemporary gazing at the portrait of an elderly woman’s face and trying to imagine her life story. Older faces in particular can be wonderfully interesting and very beautiful in a way different from our youthful appearance.

Faces encapsulate our humanity. One of the terrifying lines in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is Winston Smith’s vision of the future, that of ‘a boot stamping on a human face’. When I think of countries such as North Korea or Afghanistan, that vision seems to be a present reality.

When I became the priest-in-charge last October, virtually everyone was masked, in church and outside. Now it’s lovely to walk around the Old Town and recognise faces and to be recognised in turn. It is still the case, of course, that sometimes we may not want aspects of our personality or certain feelings to be recognised and so Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile may be ours from time to time.

In the Bible there is a concept known in Hebrew as the hester panim which translates roughly as God’s ‘hidden face’.  It refers to those occasions when God seems absent. The Bible also speaks of that day when we shall see God ‘face to face’; in other words when we know him fully.

The hidden faces of other people has been a major experience for all of us since March 2020 when masked people may not have seemed present in all of their humanity. As we return to normality, however slowly, let us rejoice in one another’s faces and seek to know each other more fully than before.

Paul Hunt

The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St Clement’s and All Saints in Hastings Old Town. St Clement’s is open for public worship at 8am and 10am on Sundays.

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