May 30: Of Masks and the Spirit
By the Rt. Rev. Henry N. Parsley, Jr.,
Visiting Bishop for the Diocese of South Carolina
What does the Feast of Pentecost have to say to us this year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? This fiftieth day of Easter celebrates God the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, and God’s indwelling presence with us. It is the birthday of the church.
When we think of the Spirit, many things come to mind: energy, vitality, mystery, power, joy. But it is the word koinonia that stands out for me this year. This Greek word is one of the most important in the New Testament, right up there with love, grace, and faith. Our English Bibles translate it as “communion” or “fellowship.” Our words “common” and “community” are in the same family. In the writings of St. Paul, koinonia is always associated with the Holy Spirit. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you,” he wrote. The apostle never tired of teaching that the special gift of the Spirit is community, fellowship, deep connectedness.
In Acts, the disciples’ experience on Pentecost is the reversal of the tower of Babel story in Genesis. Babel’s power-driven fracturing of humanity into many languages is healed by the Spirit’s gift of communion and the unifying language of love.
In his book The Go-Between God, John Taylor describes the Holy Spirit as the invisible “and” between and among us. The Spirit is God’s love power moving through all life. It is the go-between God who connects us, with all our differences, and makes us one. The Star Wars films use “the Force” as almost a metaphor for what we mean by the Spirit. “The force,” Obi-Won says, “surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”
In stark contrast is the rising polarization in our country about re-opening and wearing face masks. It is hard to imagine politicizing the wearing of masks in a pandemic. This is individualism and partisan politics run amuck—the very opposite of the Spirit’s communion. Babel again. To resist wearing a mask in public interactions says: “It’s all about me… my image, my politics, my needs. It’s not about you.” The purpose of a mask, after all, is primarily to protect our neighbor.
Pentecost is not just a feast for the faithful. It is a clarion call to the world. It urges us to care about one another, to connect, to live in the awareness that what you do affects me and what I do affects you. That is the Spirit’s work, the great “and” that binds us together. It matters always, but how much more now? The days ahead will test our resolve. We will learn to live in community, as neighbors responsible for one another. Or else, many more will suffer and die separately and needlessly.
I am proud to be an Episcopalian in this moment. Your Standing Committee, and your diocese, along with dioceses and churches across our country, are reminding us that in this moment our primary concern must be public safety and care for our neighbors. We are wearing our masks and sacrificially refraining from large gatherings in obedience to Jesus’ command to love. We will gradually find safe ways to gather physically in the days ahead. But, together or apart, we always are connected by Christ’s love and by our love. This is koinonia, the Spirit’s work. Let us live it, proclaim it, celebrate it.
God bless you.
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During the uncertain times created by the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, leadership of the diocese will send out regular meditations on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays for the next while as we all adjust to a new chapter of living and being the Church.