It is a commonplace among Christians to say that “truth is a person.” Of course, this is rightly drawn from Christ’s statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). However, most Christians fail to comprehend what it is that they have just said. That truth is a person is more than a convenient debating point. It says something about the nature of truth and how it is rightly expressed within the Christian faith.
There are many “truths” that can be confessed with regard to Christ: “Son of God,” “God incarnate,” “the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth,” and so forth. However, all of these statements, as statements, are abstractions. The statement is not the thing itself, for the thing itself is the very Person of Christ. It is interesting to note the actions associated with Holy Baptism in the Orthodox Church. After the exorcisms and profession of faith in Christ, the Nicene Creed is recited. However, following the Creed, the candidate is asked, “Have you united yourself to Christ?” When they affirm that they have, they are told: “Bow down and worship Him.”
The content of the Creed, the acceptance of Christ Himself, finally comes to an action: we bow and worship. Profession and acceptance require an inward assent, but they also require an action. We do something! Likewise throughout the Christian life, faith in Christ is expressed in action: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
What we can rightly ask is, “If truth is a person, then what does the truth look like?” Many eagerly confess that Christ is the truth, and truth is a person, but immediately abandon that insight and take refuge in syllogisms. The action in Holy Baptism ultimately affirms the syllogism (the Creed), but embodies that confession in action. The confession of the Creed looks like the worship of the true and living God. And that worship is, in this instance, expressed in a bow.
This is an important understanding when we turn our attention to other aspects of the faith – for the understanding does not change. A primary example is the Holy Eucharist. A great deal of ink (and even a little blood) has been spilt through the centuries in arguments about the nature of the Holy Eucharist. But on its most fundamental level, the Eucharist is eaten and drunk. In Orthodox practice it is not contemplated, nor given for show (as in the Western Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament). It is indeed reserved for the sick, but it is primarily eaten and drunk by the faithful, in accordance with the command of Christ.
This pattern holds up across the entire spectrum of classical Christianity. And it is in this context that the veneration of the Mother of God (and of all the saints) must be understood. The virginal conception of Christ in Mary’s womb is also the union of God and man. He “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” And as surely as He is of one essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, so He is of one essence with the Virgin. He is God of God but He is also human of human. This theological fact, however, does not sit alone as an item of intellection: it is embodied in the life of the Church as is all truth.
Thus, the Church honors the Virgin with the title “Theotokos” (“birth-giver of God”), as set forth in the 3rd Ecumenical Council. All of the veneration given to her in the course of the Church’s life is simply an expression of what it means to believe that she is truly Theotokos. The veneration of Mary is what the doctrines concerning her Divine maternity look like. Truth is a person, not simply an idea.
Our salvation is not an idea. We do not ask God to think of us and have opinions of us throughout eternity. Reality with regard to God is not an intellection. If God thinks it – it is! Our salvation looks like deification and a resurrected body. The veneration of the saints is simply what that deification and resurrection look like in the life of the Church. The life of the Church is primarily found in her piety, in her worship of God, her prayer and fasting, and all acts of devotion.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship [τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν] (Rom 12:1).
Contemporary Christianity has reduced doctrine to a set of propositions. St. James warned against this:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe– and tremble! (Jam 2:19)
If we believe, we should fall down and worship! If we hold something in honor, then we express it, in icons, veneration, lights and incense (in the words of the Seventh Council).
What time has shown is that doctrines that are reduced to ideas alone, soon become forgotten or misunderstood. The absence of Mary in the piety of the faithful slowly becomes a distortion in the right worship of God-made-man. Christmas cards are not sufficient for the life of the Church.
It is frequently the case that Orthodox (and Catholics) in the contemporary world are made to feel that their devotion to Mary and the saints has added something extra and unnecessary to the faith. Some complain that we have substituted them for God Himself.
But it is in the world of contemporary Christianity that the great apostasy is taking place. The Trinity is abandoned for abstractions; the sacraments ignored for entertainment; Jesus becomes a slogan for bumper-stickers and t-shirts. Believers not only do not believe the classical doctrines of the faith, they do not even know them. Orthodox Christians sing them and breathe them, paint them on their walls and write them in their hearts.
Truth is a person. All truth. Christ has so given us the truth that at every point, we may see it embodied in persons. The whole of the Church’s life and doctrine, is a true icon of the reality of heaven itself. There we will not think so much as sing – and fall down in the presence of the Truth.