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13. Agapae, or Feasts of Charity

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVI. Of the Lord's Supper

13. Agapae, or Feasts of Charity

These feasts were usually celebrated in connection with the Lord's supper; but not as a necessary part of it. From their connection with this ordinance, the following account of them is inserted as compiled by Riddle from Augusti and Siege!.

The history of the common meals or feasts in the church, called agapae (* more frequently than in the singular *), is in many respects obscure. It appears that they were not independent rites, but always connected with some act or office of public worship. When they were celebrated in connection with the Lord's supper, they seem to have taken place before the administration of that sacrament, in conformity with the circumstances of the original institution, which took place" after supper," 1 Cor. 11:25. This arrangement is supposed to have led to the disorders which St. Paul so sharply reproved in the Corinthian church; and the inconvenience of it becoming generally manifest, it was soon made the practice of the church to celebrate the Lord's supper first, and even to dispense with attendence at the feast which followed, although all Christians were required to contribute provisions for it, according to their ability. 

But, even under these altered circumstances, the love-feasts were frequently attended with intemperance, and other serious disorders, which form subjects of grave complaint in the writings of the Fathers. This may perhaps be reckoned among the causes of the change in the time of celebrating the Lord's supper, already mentioned, from the evening to the early part of the morning. And hence it was, that afterwards the holding of agapae within the churches was forbidden. And by this regulation the agapae became entirely distinct from the eucharist, which continued to be publicly celebrated in the church.

It cannot be exactly determined at what period the agapae were entirely abolished.

  1. Origin of the Name and of the custom. The Greek word agape, *, which signifies love or charity, is used in ecclesiastical antiquities to denote a certain feast, of which all members of the church of whatever rank or condition, partook together; intended to denote and cherish those dispositions of brotherly love and affection which the gospel prescribes to the disciples of Jesus. In the New Testament the word occurs only once in this sense of feast of charity or lovefeast, namely in the Epistle of St. Jude, verse 12, and there it is found in the plural number; but the observance itself is alluded to in the sacred records, under other names, as meat, tables, Acts 2:46, 6:2. The word was retained by ecclesiastical writers, but not to the exclusion of other significant appellations; e. g. *, banquets; *, public tables; *, public feasts; *, public suppers. This use of the term * is not found in the writings of any profane authors before the christian era; but it occurs in the works of Plutarch and Celsus, who doubtless borrowed it from the Christians.

    It is certain that the feast of charity was celebrated in the earliest period of the christian church; see Acts 2:46, 6:2, 1 Cor. 11:16–34. Some writers suppose that this custom had its remote origin in the practice of the heathen; while others regard it as derived from the Jewish synagogue. But it is perhaps still more probable that it originated simply in the circumstances of our Lord's last supper with his disciples; or that, at all events, it is to be attributed entirely to the genius of a religion which is eminently a bond of brotherly union and concord among its sincere professors.

  2. Mode of Celebration. In the earliest accounts which have come down to us, we find that the bishop or presbyter presided at these feasts. It does not appear whether the food was dressed in the place appointed for the celebration of the feast, or was previously prepared by individual members of the church at their own homes; but perhaps either of these plans was adopted indifferently, according to circumstances. Before eating, the guests washed their hands; and a public prayer was offered up. A portion of Scripture was then read, and the president proposed some questions upon it, which were answered by the persons present. After this, any accounts which had been received respecting the affairs of other churches were recited; for, at that time, such accounts were regularly transmitted from one community to another, by means of which all Christians became acquainted with the history and condition of the whole body, and were thus enabled to sympathize with, and in many cases to assist, each other. Letters from bishops and other eminent members of the church, together with the Acts of the Martyrs, were also recited on this occasion. And hymns or psalms were sung. At the close of the feast, money was also collected for the benefit of widows and orphans, the poor, prisoners, and persons who had suffered shipwreck. Before the meeting broke up, all the members of the church embraced each other, in token of mutual brotherly-love; and the whole ceremony was concluded with a philanthropic prayer. 

    As the number of Christians increased, various deviations from the original practice of celebration occurred; which called for the censure of the governors of the church. In consequence of these irregularities, it was appointed that the president should deliver to each guest his portion separately, and that the larger portions should be distributed among the presbyters, deacons, and other officers of the church.

    While the church was exposed to persecution, these feasts were not only conducted with regularity and good order, but were made subservient to christian edification, and to the promotion of brotherly love and of that kind of concord and union which was specially demanded by the circumstances of the times. None but full members of the church were allowed to be present; catechumens, penitents, Jews, and heathens, being carefully excluded. A custom of admitting baptized children, which was introduced at an early period, was afterwards abandoned as inconvenient. 

    The following description of christian intercourse in their lovefeasts is also from Tertullian, Apol. 39. "They sit not down at table till prayers have been offered to God. They eat as much as the hunger of each one requires, and drink only so much as is necessary to health and cheerfulness. Being thus satisfied, they are mindful that the evening is to be spent in prayer. They enter into conversation with the continued reflection that God is hearing them. After their hands are washed and lights are brought in, each one is invited to sing something before the company to the praise of God, whether it be borrowed from the holy Scripture, or as his own heart may dictate to him. Then it is seen how much he has drunken. With prayer the interview is closed."

  3. Time and place of Celebration. – Time of day. These feasts, as well as all Christian assemblies, were held, at first, whenever and wherever opportunity would permit, consistently with safety. The passages of the New Testament which refer to the agapae afford no intimation of the time of day in which they were celebrated, unless indeed we regard Acts 20:7, as supplying some information on this point. From Tertullian it would appear that they were held in the night; for he calls them coenae and coenulae, in contradistinction to prandia; and this writer gives us to understand that lights were required in the place in which the feast was made. But it is probable that this nocturnal celebration was more a matter of necessity than of choice.

    According to the account of Pliny in his letter to Trajan, it would seem that in his time (in Bithynia, at least) these feasts were held in the day-time. 

    On the whole, it may be concluded that the nature of the case did not permit the uniform observance of any fixed hour or time of day in the celebration of this feast, during the earliest period of the church, while it was exposed to persecution.

    Day of the week. These feasts were ordinarily held on the first day of the week, or Sunday; but the celebration does not appear to have been exclusively confined to that day. 

    Place of meeting. At first, the agapae were celebrated in private houses, or in other retired places, in which the Christians met for the purpose of religious worship. After the erection of churches, these feasts were held within their walls; until, abuses having occurred which rendered the observance inconsistent with the sanctity of such places, this practice was forbidden. In the middle of the fourth century, the Council of Laodicea enacted "that agapae should not be celebrated in churches;" a prohibition which was repeated by the Council of Carthage, in the year 391; and was afterwards strictly enjoined during the sixth and seventh centuries. By the efforts of Gregory of Neocaesarea, Chrysostom, and others, a custom was generally established of holding the agapae only under trees, or some other shelter, in the neighborhood of the churches; and from that time the clergy and other principal members of the church were recommended to withdraw from them altogether.

    In the early church, it was usual to celebrate agapae on the festivals of martyrs, agapae nataliiiae, at their tombs; a practice to which reference is made in the epistle of the church of Smyrna, concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp. 

    These feasts were sometimes celebrated on a smaller scale, at marriages, agapae connubiales, and funerals, agapae funerales.

  4. Abolition of the custom. The celebration of the agapae was frequently made a subject of calumny and misrepresentation by the enemies of the christian faith, even during the earliest and best ages of the church. In reply to these groundless attacks, the conduct of the Christians of those times was successfully vindicated by Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Origen, and others. But real disorders having afterwards arisen, and having proceeded to considerable lengths, it became necessary to abolish the practice altogether; and this task was eventually effected, but not without the application of various means, and only after a considerable lapse of time.

Justin Martyr, Apol. 1. c. 67: Hieronym. Comment, in 1 Cor. 11. Chrysost. Horn. 27 in 1. Cor.

Clem. Alex. Paed. lib. ii. c. I: Augustln. Ep. 64: contr. Faust. lib. XX. c. 21: Confess, lib. vi. c. 2: Chrysost. Horn. 27 in 1 Cor. 11: Greg. Naz. Praecept. ad Virgin.

Augustin. Ep. 64. ad Aurel.: Cone. Laod. cir. A. D. 364, c. 28: Cone. Carthag. A. D. 397: Cone. Aurel. ii. c. 12: Cone. Trullan. c. 74.

Justin 3Iartyr, Apol. ii: see also 1 Cor. 12.

Cyprian. Ep. de Spectac.: Tertull. DeCoron. c. 3: Socrat. Hist. Eccl. lib. v. c. 22.

Justin Mart. Apol. ii: Origen. in Ep. ad Rom. 16:16.

Clem. Alex. Paedagog. ii. 1, 2.

Tertull. Apol. c. 39.

Justin 3Iart. Apol. ii. c. 97.

Cyprian. De Lapsis.

Chrysostom, Ad 1 Cor. 11. Horn. 54, and Horn. 22 on the text Oportet haereses esse.

Acts 20:7: Tertull. Ad Uxor. lib. ii: Cyprian. De Orat. Domini.

Cone. Aurelian. ii. A. D. 535: Cone. Trullan. A. D. 692.

Theodoret. Hist. Eccl. lib. iii. c. 15: Evang. Verit. viii. p. 633–4, ed. Schultz.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

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