February 2, 2024

The Justinianic Bubonic Plague of 542 and the Establishment of the Feast of the Reception of Christ

By St. Dimitri of Rostov

The celebration of the Reception of the Lord was established in the reign of Justinian,1 but earlier, although the Reception of the Lord was commemorated in the Church,2 it was not solemnly celebrated. The pious Emperor Justinian established that this feast should be celebrated as a feast of the Lord and the Theotokos, along with other great feasts. Special circumstances motivated the establishment of this festival. During the reign of Justinian in Byzantium and its environs, for three months, starting from the last days of October, there was a strong plague, so that at first five thousand people died a day, and then ten thousand; the bodies of even rich and high-ranking people were left without burial, for the servants and slaves all died and there was no one to bury the masters themselves.

And in Antioch, for the sins of people, another punishment of God joined to the plague - a terrible earthquake, from which all large houses and tall buildings and churches fell, and many people died under their walls; among the dead was Euphrasius,3 Bishop of Antioch, who was crushed to death when the church fell. In this terrible and disastrous time, there was a revelation to a pious person that a solemn celebration of the Reception of the Lord was to be established, as well as other great feasts of the Lord and Mother of God. And so, at the onset of the day of the Reception of the Lord, on the 2nd of February,5 when they began to celebrate with the all-night vigil and the procession with crosses,4 the deadly plague and earthquake immediately ceased, through the mercy of God and through the prayers of the Most Pure Theotokos. To her with Christ God born of Her, let there be honor, glory, veneration and thanksgiving forever. Amen.


[1] Emperor Justinian the Great reigned from 527 to 566. The decree on the solemn celebration of the Reception of the Lord throughout the empire was issued by him in 542. It was at this time that the feast was transferred from February 14th to February 2nd, to coincide with it falling forty days after the celebration of Christmas.

[2] There are references to this feast in the writings of the Church Fathers of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries.

[3] Euphrasius was Bishop of Antioch from 523 to 527. He died after falling into a cauldron of pitch being used by wineskin makers, with only his head remaining unburnt. In 527 the feast of the Reception of the Lord was established in Antioch in response to the plague. This would later influence Emperor Justinian to institute the feast in 542 with the outbreak of the bubonic plague.

[4] In memory of the end of the plague that took place in Constantinople, and the terrible earthquake in Antioch, in some places it is customary for the Church to proceed with the litia before the liturgy outside the monasteries and during this procession to sing the stichera of the feast and the canon, according to custom; and upon returning to the church to celebrate the Liturgy.

[5] In the kontakion for the Reception of the Lord, the Church commemorates the deliverance from the troubles that befell the Eastern Church and, by the grace of God, ceased under Emperor Justinian.

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