Liturgical Emotions in the Shadow of the Pandemic: The Justinianic Plague and COVID-19 in Counterpoint

While natural disasters provoked liturgical reform in Constantinople, including the emergence of a rite for the commemoration of earthquakes in the mid-fifth century, a similar response to the Justinianic Plague that began in the 540s appears to be lacking. Unlike the litanies of the West, which sought to invoke the forgiveness and mercy of God in the face of an epidemic, such liturgical processions are absent from the East. However, scholars such as Mischa Meier have argued that the plague was a catalyst for intense devotion to the Theotokos and the sacralization of the emperor, as well as what Averil Cameron called liturgification. Despite an intensifying spirit of apocalypticism, the portrayal of the eschaton in sixth-century hymnody sought to shape and sustain emotional and liturgical communities amidst the fear of God’s wrath. Hymns by Romanos the Melodist such as ‘On the Second Coming’ and ‘On the Ten Virgins’ may not have been commissioned by the emperor in the same way the hymn ‘On Earthquakes and Fires’ arguably was, but they served as emotional and liturgical scripts for the faithful in a time of crisis.

Today, with the descendants of Byzantium spending much of their time either in quarantine or lockdown, how does the absence of liturgical life affect the navigation of emotion and the faithful’s understanding of divine providence? Will the Pauline “church in the house” be rediscovered or will liturgy give way to contemplation and interiority?

This paper will explore the liturgical and political complexity of plague, fear, and providence during the reign of Justinian and during COVID-19.