Fresco of a banquet at a tomb in the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome.
The term Agape or Love feast was used for certain religious meals among early Christians that seem to have been originally closely related to the Eucharist. In modern times the Lovefeast is used to refer to a Christian ritual meal distinct from the Eucharist.
References to such communal meals are discerned in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, in Saint Ignatius of Antioch‘s Letter to the Smyrnaeans, where the term “agape” is used, and in a letter from Pliny the Younger to Trajan, in which he reported that the Christians, after having met “on a stated day” in the early morning to “address a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity”, later in the day would “reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal”. Similar communal meals are attested also in the “Apostolic Tradition” often attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, who does not use the term “agape”, and by Tertullian, who does. The connection between such substantial meals and the Eucharist had virtually ceased by the time of Cyprian (died 258), when the Eucharist was celebrated with fasting in the morning and the agape in the evening. The Synod of Gangra in 340 makes mention of them in relation to a heretic who had barred his followers from attending them. The Council of Laodicea of about 363–64 forbade the use of churches for celebrating the Agape or love feast. Though still mentioned in the Quinisext Council of 692, the Agape fell into disuse soon after, except perhaps in Ethiopia.
A form of meal referred to as Agape feast or Lovefeast was introduced among certain eighteenth-century Pietist groups, such as the Schwarzenau Brethren and the Moravian Church, and was adopted by Methodism. The name has been revived more recently among other groups, including Anglicans, as well as the American “House Church” movement.
The earliest reference to a meal of the type referred to as “agape” is in Paul the Apostle‘s First Epistle to the Corinthians, although the term can only be inferred vaguely from its prominence in 1 Cor 13. Many New Testament scholars hold that the Christians of Corinth met in the evening and had a common meal including sacramental action over bread and wine. 1 Corinthians 11:20–34 indicates that the rite was associated with participation in a meal of a more general character. It apparently involved a full meal, with the participants bringing their own food but eating in a common room. Perhaps predictably enough, it could at times deteriorate into merely an occasion for eating and drinking, or for ostentatious displays by the wealthier members of the community, as happened in Corinth, drawing the criticisms of Paul: “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”
The term “Agape” is also used in reference to meals in Jude 12 and according to a few manuscripts of 2 Peter 2:13
Soon after the year 100, Ignatius of Antioch refers to the agape or love-feast. In Letter 97 to Trajan, Pliny the Younger perhaps indicates, in about 112, that such a meal was normally taken separately from the Eucharistic celebration (although he is silent about its nomenclature): he speaks of the Christians separating after having offered prayer, on the morning of a fixed day, to Christ as God, and reassembling later for a common meal. The rescheduling of the agape meal was triggered by Corinthian selfishness and gluttony. Tertullian too seems to write of these meals, though what he describes is not quite clear.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–211/216) distinguished so-called “Agape” meals of luxurious character from the agape (love) “which the food that comes from Christ shows that we ought to partake of”. Accusations of gross indecency were sometimes made against the form that these meals sometimes took. Referring to Clement of Alexandria, Stromata III,2, Philip Schaff commented: “The early disappearance of the Christian agapæ may probably be attributed to the terrible abuse of the word here referred to, by the licentious Carpocratians. The genuine agapæ were of apostolic origin (2 Pet. ii. 13; Jude 12), but were often abused by hypocrites, even under the apostolic eye (1 Corinthians 11:21). In the Gallican Church, a survival or relic of these feasts of charity is seen in the pain béni; and, in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the ἀντίδωρον (antidoron) or eulogiæ, also known as prosphora distributed to non-communicants at the close of the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), from the loaf out of which the Lamb (Host) and other portions have been cut during the Liturgy of Preparation.”
Augustine of Hippo also objected to the continuance in his native North Africa of the custom of such meals, in which some indulged to the point of drunkenness, and he distinguished them from proper celebration of the Eucharist: “Let us take the body of Christ in communion with those with whom we are forbidden to eat even the bread which sustains our bodies.” He reports that even before the time of his stay in Milan, the custom had already been forbidden there.
Canons 27 and 28 of the Council of Laodicea (364) restricted the abuses of taking home part of the provisions and of holding the meals in churches. The Third Council of Carthage (393) and the Second Council of Orléans (541) reiterated the prohibition of feasting in churches, and the Trullan Council of 692 decreed that honey and milk were not to be offered on the altar (Canon 57), and that those who held love feasts in churches should be excommunicated (Canon 74).
In the medieval Georgian Orthodox Church, the term agapi referred to a commemorative meal or distribution of victuals, offered to clergymen, the poor, or passers-by, accompanying the funeral service on the anniversary of the deceased. The permanent celebration of agapae was assured by legacies and foundations.
Protestant revivals of the practice
After the Protestant Reformation there was a move amongst some groups of Christians to try to return to the practices of the New Testament Church. One such group was the Schwarzenau Brethren (1708) who counted a Love Feast consisting of Feet-washing, the Agape meal, and the Eucharist among their “outward yet sacred” ordinances. Another was the Moravians led by Count Zinzendorf who adopted a form consisting of the sharing of a simple meal, and then testimonies or a devotional address were given and letters from missionaries read.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, travelled to America in the company of the Moravians and greatly admired their faith and practice. After his conversion in 1738 he introduced the Love Feast to what became known as the Methodist movement. Due to the lack of ordained ministerswithin Methodism, the Love Feast took on a life of its own, as there were few opportunities to take Communion. As such, the Primitive Methodistscelebrated the Love Feast, before it gradually died out again in the nineteenth century as the revival cooled.
The Schwarzenau Brethren groups (the largest being the Church of the Brethren) regularly practice Agape feasts (called “Love Feast”), which include feetwashing, a supper, and communion, with hymns and brief scriptural meditations interspersed throughout the worship service. The Creation Seventh Day Adventists partake of an Agape feast as a part of their New Moon observances, taking the form of a formal, all-natural meal held after the communion supper. The Agape is a common feature used by the Catholic Neocatechumenal Way in which members of the Way participate in light feast after the celebration of the Eucharist on certain occasions.
A number of Eastern Orthodox Christian parishes will have an agape meal on Sundays and feast days following the Divine Liturgy, and especially at the conclusion of the Paschal Vigil.