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The suffering of Christ, humanity and the lepers in Gregory Nazianzen

  • Susan Wessel (a1)


Gregory Nazianzen spoke of a suffering Christ ‘who became weak for us’ in the context of an oration, On Love of the Poor, which dealt at length with the extreme suffering the lepers had endured. The outcasts of the ancient world, lepers figured prominently in Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospels. By juxtaposing their human suffering with divine weakness, Gregory implied that Christ had suffered with the lepers. The comparison not only gave meaning to the human experience of suffering, it also explored the extent of Christ's suffering in the divine economy. There was no affliction too grotesque for Christ to have assumed.

Throughout his life, Gregory developed a notion of collective suffering which is relevant to understanding the magnitude of the suffering of Christ. It made the limitless suffering of humanity seem manageable and contained. It normalised the overwhelming sense of misery by expanding individual suffering into the suffering of the group, the suffering of the group into the suffering of neighbours and finally the suffering of neighbours into the collective suffering of the body of Christ. Christ then experienced the fullness of the human condition as the head of this body.

The lepers served a purpose in this vision of collective suffering. By making the lepers a synecdoche for all human suffering, Gregory allowed Christ to assume their misery without his listeners having to imagine Christ suffering every aspect of their physical and emotional distress. This transference of collective suffering to the body of Christ worked in the following way: the individual suffering of the leper flowed into the collective suffering of the group, which connected with, and was incorporated into, the collective suffering of the Christian body. The result was a relationship of mutual imitation between Christ and humanity. It implied that human beings suffered with Christ, and that Christ suffered with human beings.

By integrating literary techniques and contexts into theological analysis, this article examines the various ways in which Gregory construed the suffering of Christ.



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1 Norris, Frederick W., Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: The Five Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzen, tr. Lionel Wickham, Frederick Williams (Leiden: Brill, 1991), p. 50.

2 Bouteneff, Peter, ‘St. Gregory Nazianzen and Two-Nature Christology’, St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 38/3 (1994), pp. 255–70 at p. 263.

3 Beeley, Christopher A., The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 193.

4 Bynum, Caroline Walker, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. vi–vii; Beeley, Christopher, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 122.

5 See e.g. Reuther, Rosemary Radford, Gregory of Nazianzus. Rhetor and Philosopher (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 55128.

6 Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 14, On Love of the Poor 14.15. PG 35.876B/C . . . τὰς ἀσθενείας ἡμῶν βαστάσαντος τοῦ ταπεινώσαντος ἑαυτὸν μέχρι τοῦ ἡμετέρου φυράματος, τοῦ δι᾿ἡμᾶς πτωχεύσαντος τὴν σάρκα ταύτην καὶ τὸ γεῶδες σκῆνος, καὶ ὀδυνηθέντος και μαλακισθέντος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν, ἱνα ἡμεῖς πλουτήσωμεν τὴν θεότητα. See Vinson, Martha, St Gregory of Nazianzus. Select Orations (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), p. 49.

7 McGuckin, John, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), pp. 145–6.

8 Sozomon, Ecclesiastical History 6.34.9.

9 ἐν ᾧ νόσος φιλοσοφεῖται καὶ συμφορὰ μακαρίζεται καὶ τὸ συμπαθὲς δοκιμάζεται . . . Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 43.63; PG 36.577C.

10 McGuckin, St Gregory of Nazianzus, pp. 147–8. See Oration 14.13. PG 35.873.

11 For a discussion, see Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity, pp. 254–8.

12 Oration 14.13. PG 35.873B. Τίς οὐ κατακλᾶται τούτων τοῖς ὀδυρμοῖς οἰκτρὰν ξυναυλίαν ἁρμοζομένων;

13 Oration 43.63.

14 Oration 14.13. PG 35.873C. . . . Περιίσταται δὲ αὐτοὺς θέατρον συμμιγές, συναλγούντων μέν, ἀλλὰ πρόσκαιρα.

15 See Brown, Peter, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 77–8.

16 See Oration 14.13. PG 35.873B. The musical imagery is further enhanced by alliteration, homoearcha and homoeoteleuta.

17 Gregory's musical imagery is illustrated here: Ἀντᾴδει δὲ τοῖς ἱεροῖς ἕνδον μέλεσιν ὁ τῶν αἰτήσεων ὀδυρμὸς, καὶ ταῖς μυστικαῖς φωναῖς θρῆνος ἐλεεινὸς ἀντεγείρεται. PG 35.873C. ‘The pleading lamentation sings antiphonally with the sacred melodies within and a pitiable dirge is raised against it’.

18 Oration 14.13. PG 35.873B/C.

19 On Gregory's use of scripture in Oration 14 see Matz, Brian J., ‘Deciphering a Recipe for Biblical Preaching in Oration 14’, in Beeley, Christopher A. (ed.), Re-Reading Gregory of Nazianzus (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), pp. 4966.

20 Oration 30.1. τὰς μὲν ὑψηλοτέρας καὶ θεοπρεπεστέρας φωνὰς προσνείμαντες τῇ θεότητι, τὰς δὲ ταπεινοτέρας καὶ ἀνθρωπικωτέρας τῷ νέῳ δι’ ἡμᾶς Ἀδὰμ καὶ θεῷ παθητῷ κατὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας·Grégoire de Nazianze. Discours 27–31, ed. Paul Gallay, Sources chrétiennes, 250 (Paris: Les Éditions de Cerf, 1978), p. 226; PG 36.104C.

21 Norris, Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, p. 50.

22 Ibid., p. 265; see Oration 30.5. Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze, p. 234; PG 36.109A. Ὁ θεός, ὁ θεός μου, πρόσχες μοι, ἵνα τι ἐγκατέλιπές με; See also Ps 21:1; Matt 2:46.

23 Beeley, Unity of Christ, p. 191.

24 Oration 30.5. Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze, p. 234; PG 36.109A. . . . οὐ γὰρ αὐτὸς ἐγκαταλέλειπται ἢ ὑπὸ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἢ ὑπὸ τῆς ἑαυτοῦ θεότητος, ὃ δοκεῖ τισιν, ὡς ἂν φοβουμένης τὸ πάθος, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο συστελλομένης ἀπὸ τοῦ πάσχοντος·

25 Oration 30.6. . . . καὶ πάντα μετρεῖ τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ πάθεσι τέχνῃ φιλανθρωπίας, ὥστε ἕχειν εἰδέναι τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ τὰ ἡμέτερα. . . Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze, p. 236; PG 36.109C.

26 Gregory used ‘καταλείπω’ to describe both types of abandonment. Oration 30.5.

27 Oration 30.5. Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze, p. 234; PG 36.109B.

28 See Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity, pp. 115–22.

29 Kenneth Paul Wesch, ‘The Union of God and Man in Jesus Christ in the Thought of Gregory of Nazianzus’, St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly (1984), p. 95; Oration 30.5; . . . ὅλον ἐν ἑαυτῷ ἐμὲ φέρων μετὰ τῶν ἐμῶν, ἵν’ ἐν ἑαυτῷ δαπανήσῃ τὸ χεῖρον . . . Oration 30.6. Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze, pp. 234, 236; PG 36.109B, 109C.

30 Oration 30.6.

31 Beeley, Christopher A., ‘Cyril of Alexandria and Gregory Nazianzen: Tradition and Complexity in Patristic Christology’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 17 (2009), pp. 381419.

32 Norris, Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, p. 49. See also Spidlik, Thomas, Grégoire de Nazianze. Introduction à l’étude de sa doctrine spirituelle. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 189 (Rome: Pont. Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1971), pp. 101–2.

33 Letter 101 to Cledonius; PG 37.181B. See also PG 37.184B/C.

34 Liddell, Henry George and Scott, Robert, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 953.

35 Lampe, G. W. H., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 755.

36 Letter 101 to Cledonius; PG 37.184B/C.

37 PG 37.184C. Τοιαύτη γὰρ ἡ τῶν νοητῶν φύσις, ἀσωμάτως καὶ ἀμερίστως, καὶ ἀλλήλοις, καὶ σώμασι μίγνυσθαι.

38 PG 37.181C–184A. Τὸ γὰρ ἀπρόσληπτον, ἀθεράπευτον· ὃ δὲ ἥνωται τῷ θεῷ, τοῦτο καὶ σῴζεται. See Frederick Norris, Gregory Nazianzen's Doctrine of Jesus Christ (Thesis, Yale University, 1970), p. 157.

39 Letter 101 to Cledonius; PG 37.184A. Εἰ ἥμισυς ἕπταισεν ὁ Ἀδάμ, ἥμισυ καὶ τὸ προσειλημμένον καὶ τὸ σωζόμενον. Εἰ δὲ ὅλος, ὅλῳ τῷ γεννηθέντι ἥνωται, καὶ ὅλως σῴζεται.

40 PG 37.188C.

41 PG 37.188B; Holman, Susan R., The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (Oxford and New York: OUP, 2001), p. 156.

42 Oration 30.3; Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze, p. 230; PG 36.105C. Τί δὲ μεῖζον ἀνθρώπου ταπεινότητι ἢ θεῷ πλακῆναι, καὶ γενέσθαι θεὸν ἐκ τῆς μίξεως . . .

43 Spidlik, Grégoire de Nazianze, p. 103.

44 Oration 38, On the Theophany of Christ; Grégoire de Nazianze. Discours 38–41, ed. Claudio Moreschini, tr. Paul Gallay (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1990).

45 Oration 38.11; Grégoire de Nazianze. Discours 38–41, Discours 38, p. 124; PG 36.321C.

46 Discours 38, pp. 124–5; PG 36.321C/D. καὶ παρὰ μὲν τῆς ὕλης λαβὼν τὸ σῶμα ἤδη προυποστάσης, παρ’ ἑαυτοῦ δὲ πνοὴν ἐνθείς–ὃ δὴ νοερὰν ψυχὴν καὶ εἰκόνα θεοῦ οἶδεν ὁ λόγος--, οἷόν τινα κόσμον δεύτερον . . . See also Oration 45.7; PG 36.632A. See Gregory of Nyssa, On the Creation of Humanity, p. 16, PG 44.180A. On the human person as microcosm, see Spidlik, Grégoire de Nazianze, pp. 105–6.

47 Bouteneff, ‘St. Gregory Nazianzen and Two-Nature Christology’, p. 259. See Ellverson, Anna-Stina, The Dual Nature of Man: A Study in the Theological Anthropology of Gregory of Nazianzus (Stockholm: Uppsala University, 1981), p. 79.

48 Ellverson, Dual Nature of Man, pp. 37–8.

49 See Spidlik, Grégoire de Nazianze, pp. 103–4.

50 Ellverson, Dual Nature of Man, pp. 67, 79. See also Orations 2.91 and 39.7; Spidlik, Grégoire de Nazianze, p. 104.

51 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.3.1.

52 See Oration 38.9; Grégoire de Nazianze. Discours 38–41, Discours 38, pp. 120–1; PG 36.320C/D–321A; Ellverson, Dual Nature of Man, pp. 50–1, and texts cited.

53 Oration 2.75; PG 35.481C. Τίς . . . καὶ μίξας τὸν χοῦν τῷ πνεύματι, καὶ συνθεὶς ζῶον ὁρατὸν καὶ ἀόρατον, πρόσκαιρον καὶ ἀθάνατον, ἐπίγειον καὶ οὐράνιον, ἁπτόμενον θεοῦ καὶ οὐ περιδρασσόμενον . . .

54 On Human Nature, ll. 66–7; PG 37.760A. Πῶς ἐμίγης / Πνεῦμα πάχει, σαρξὶν δὲ νόος, καὶ ἄχθει κούφη; See Gilbert, Peter (tr.), On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001).

55 On Human Nature, l. 68; PG 37.760A; l. 27; PG 37.257A. ῥόος θολεροῦ ποταμοῖο / Αἰὲν ἐπερχόμενος, ἑσταὸς οὐδὲν ἕχων.

56 On Human Nature, l. 100; PG 37.763A. Τέτρυμ’ ἡματίαις φροντίσι καὶ νυχίαις. ‘I am worn out with worry night and day.’ See also ibid., l. 105; PG 37.763A.

57 On Human Nature, l. 130. PG 37.765A. ’Oψὲ δ’ ἀπὸ σκιεροῦ ἄλσεος οἴκαδε ἕβην, / Ἄλλοτε μὲν γελόων ἑτερόφρονα, ἄλλοτε δ’ αὖτε / Κῆρ ἄχει σμύχων, μαρναμένοιο νόου.

58 Oration 14.6. PG 35.864C–865A. εἴτε δι’ ὀρφανίαν, εἴτε ἀποξένωσιν πατρίδος, εἴτε ὠμότητα δεσποτῶν, εἴτε ἀρχόντων θράσος, εἴτε φορολόγων ἀπανθρωπίαν, εἴτε λῃστῶν μιαιφονίαν, εἴτε κλεπτῶν ἀπληστίαν, εἴτε δήμευσιν, εἴτε ναυάγιον·

59 Oration 14.10. PG 35.869B. Τὰ μὲν γὰρ ἀνήλωται δυστυχῶς, τὰ δὲ σώζεται δυστυχέστερον· τὰ μὲν οἴχεται πρὸ τῶν τάφων, τὰ δὲ οὐκ ἕστιν ὁ παραδώσων ταφῇ.

60 Oration 14.6. PG 35.865A, n. 49.

61 Oration 14.6–7. PG 35.865A/B.

62 Oration 14.7. PG 35.865C. ἳν’ ὃταν ἐπαιρώμεθα διὰ τὴν εἰκόνα, διὰ τὸν χοῦν συστελλώμεθα.

63 Oration 14.8. PG 35.868A. Πάντες γὰρ ἕν ἐσμεν ἐν Κυρίῳ, εἴτε πλούσιος, εἴτε πένης, εἴτε δοῦλος, εἴτε ἐλεύθερος, εἴτε ὑγιαίνων, εἴτε πονηρῶς ἕχων τοῦ σώματος·

64 Ibid. Καὶ ὅπερ ἐστὶν ἀλλήλοις τὰ μέλη, τοῦτο ἕκαστος ἑκάστῳ, καὶ πᾶσιν ἅπαντες·

65 Ibid. οὔκουν περιοπτέον, οὐδὲ ἀμελητέον τῶν προεμπεσόντων εἰς τὴν κοινὴν ἀσθένειαν·

66 Oration 14.9. PG 35.868C. Ἐχὼ μὲν οὐδὲ ἀδακρυτὶ φέρω τὸ τούτων πάθος, καὶ τῇ μνήμῃ συγχέομαι· πάσχοιτε δὲ καὶ ὑμεῖς ταυτὸν, ἵνα τοῖς δάκρυσι τὰ δάκρυα φύγήτε·



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