The most basic Christian gesture in prayer is and always will be the sign of the Cross. It is a way of confessing Christ crucified with one’s very body… To seal oneself with the sign of the Cross is a visible and public Yes to him who suffered for us; to him who in the body has made God’s love visible, even to the utmost; to the God who reigns not by destruction but by the humility of suffering and love, which is stronger than all the power of the world and wiser than all the calculating intelligence of men.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 177
Reflection – The whole business of the body has been on my mind lately, one way or another. Recently various aches and pains (non-serious so far) are continually reminding me that 45 is not the same as 25 or even 35, and that 55, 65, and 75 promise to be even more so. Meanwhile, in the past few months, several members of MH and some of our very beloved friends have fallen seriously ill, bodily malfunctions of various kinds threatening them with possible death and certain grave suffering. At the same time, as a priest I continually work in spiritual direction with people struggling with their unruly passions and the bodily struggles and sins therein.
So yes, the body has been much with me lately. And this beautiful reflection from Ratzinger is very relevant to all of the above. We confess Christ crucified with our own bodies. By signing our flesh with the Cross, we not only claim it for Christ, but claim the salvation he wrought for us in His flesh, and how He wrought it.
Hatred or contempt for the flesh is a ‘hardy perennial’ in our humanity. We think of it in terms of Jansenism or Puritanism, the pinched repressed stereotype of Victorian prudery. But it is equally expressed in hedonistic debauchery and the blithe indifference of our age. ‘Who cares – we’re all just animals, after all!’ But we are not just animals. Our bodies have animalistic structures, yes, but our bodies are united with a spiritual soul, and body and soul together have a transcendent meaning and purpose.
But the body is so… gross, you know! (So might run the argument). We expel gases and fluids and solids that smell bad, we need to shovel dead organic matter into our maws several times a day, we sweat and stink and fall unconscious daily and our sexual urges are too much for us usually, and in the end of it all we die and decompose into nothing… come on! The body just is what it is, and what it is ain’t nothing special.
And our counter-argument? ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…’ Hand to forehead, heart, left and right shoulder (right and left if you are Byzantine!). We claim the embodiment of God in Christ, the embodiment of Love and mercy on the Cross, the working of salvation and restoration and re-creation and cosmic consummation as a bodily act of Jesus Christ.
And this act of Jesus—it wasn’t too pleasant, you know. Blood and sweat and stench and pain, and a mute limp corpse at the end of it. This is the answer to all the varieties of dualism and Gnostic rejection of the flesh. Jesus saved and re-created the whole cosmos, healed the soul of man and worked our spiritual rebirth and divinization by entering the depth of bodily frailty and weakness, by his suffering and death in the flesh.
The sign of the Cross – such a simple thing. We Catholics and Orthodox do it all the time, every day. But what it means is depth beyond depth. Our bodies are His body; our flesh is taken up in all its messy struggles, aches and pains, illnesses and ultimate death, into His Flesh.