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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

Love Feast

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Usually termed Agape, and signifying the social meal of the primitive Christians, which generally accompanied the Eucharist. If we reflect on the profound impression which the transactions of 'the night on which the Lord was betrayed' () must have made on the minds of the apostles, nothing can be conceived more natural, or in closer accordance with the genius of the new dispensation, than a wish to perpetuate the commemoration of his death in connection with their social meal. The primary celebration of the Eucharist had impressed a sacredness on the previous repast (comp. , , with , ); and when to this consideration we add the ardent faith and love of the new converts on the one hand, and the loss of property with the disruption of old connections and attachments on the other, which must have heightened the feeling of brotherhood, we need not look further to account for the institution of the Agape, at once a symbol of Christian love and a striking exemplification of its benevolent energy. However soon its purity was soiled, at first it was not undeserving of the eulogy pronounced by the great orator of the church—'A custom most beautiful and most beneficial; for it was a supporter of love, a solace of poverty, a moderator of wealth, and a discipline of humility!'

Thus the common meal and the Eucharist formed together one whole, and were conjointly denominated the Lord's Supper and agape. They were also signified (according to Mosheim, Neander. and other eminent critics) by the phrases breaking of bread (;; ). We find the term agape thus applied once, at least, in the New Testament (), 'These are spots in your feasts of charity.'

The following is the description given by Tertullian of these feasts. 'The nature of our Caena,' he says, 'may be gathered from its name, which is the Greek term for love. However much it may cost us, it is real gain to incur such expense in the cause of piety: for we aid the poor by this refreshment; we do not sit down to it till we have first tasted of prayer to God; we eat to satisfy our hunger; we drink no more than befits the temperate; we feast as those who recollect that they are to spend the night in devotion; we converse as those who know that the Lord is an ear-witness. After water for washing hands, and lights have been brought in, everyone is required to sing something to the praise of God, either from the Scriptures or from his own thoughts; by this means, if anyone has indulged in excess, he is detected. The feast is closed with prayer.' Contributions or oblations of provisions or money were made on these occasions, and the surplus placed in the hands of the presiding elder—compare , by whom it was applied to the relief of orphans and widows, the sick and destitute, prisoners and strangers.

From the passages in the Epistles of Jude and Peter, already quoted, and more particularly from the language of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, it appears that at a very early period the Agape were perverted from their original design: the rich frequently practiced a selfish indulgence, to the neglect of their poorer brethren: 'every one taketh before other his own supper' (); i.e. the rich feasted on the provisions they brought, without waiting for the poorer members, or granting them a portion of their abundance.

On account of these and similar irregularities, and probably in part to elude the notice of their persecutors, the Christians, about the middle of the second century, frequently celebrated the Eucharist by itself and before daybreak. From Pliny's Epistle it appears that the agape were suspected by the Roman authorities of belonging to the class of unions or secret societies which were often employed for political purposes, and as such denounced by the imperial edicts.

In modern times social meetings bearing a resemblance to the agape, and in allusion to them termed 'Love Feasts,' have been regularly held by the church of the United Brethren and the Wesleyan Methodists, also in Scotland by the followers of Mr. Robert Sandeman.





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Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Love Feast'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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