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.