This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Agape Feast - Why There Is A Need to Revive This Biblical Observance

There are many practices that much of the modern Church has lost that were practiced by Christians of old, and one of those is a meal called the Agape Feast (or the Love Feast, as it is known in some circles).  There are a lot of misconceptions about what this was or is, and among those misconceptions are the following:

1.  It has been thought of as the same as the Eucharist, which it is not.
2.  Some, including many modern-day Roman Catholics and Orthodox, believe the informal "coffee hour" at the end of Sunday Liturgy is the Biblical Love feast, but this is not so either
3.  Many, including a number of Protestants in the Southeastern US, believe the potluck suppers they have periodically are the equivalent of the Agape Feast, but this is not true either.

Therefore, being there are misconceptions as to what the Agape Feast actually is, I felt led to do a teaching on it here.  What you may discover may be surprising actually!

My mother's folks - more specifically, my maternal great-grandmother's family - were part of a religious tradition called Dunkards.  Dunkards are an Anabaptist/Pietist sect that originated via the efforts of a minister by the name of Alexander Mack in Schwartznau, Germany, back in the early 1700's, and many Dunkards, fleeing persecution, fled to the area of the Potomac Highlands of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia back in the early 1800's, and among those were my ancestors.  Although not raised Dunkard myself, the influence of their legacy has been in our family now for generations, and it is a great spiritual legacy to have because these people really lived their Christianity - my grandfather still speaks of the old Dunkard Church up in Sugarlands near St. George, WV, as a fine example of "7-day-a-week Christians," and indeed they did live up to that legacy well.   As part of that legacy, the Dunkards took the New Testament seriously, and one thing they practice faithfully even to this day is the Agape Feast.  Much of the way they observe this feast - usually twice a year, depending on the particular group - is very much reflective of the New Testament observance of the practice, and therefore their literature provides some rich material for me to do this study. However, I want to bring this back to the liturgical/sacramental expression of the Christian faith, and that is why the more I study this, the more I feel it could be something we as Catholic Christians could revive. 

As for the practice itself, it seems to be rooted in the Passover seder, as it reflects much of the seder in its observance.  When we look at the passage of the Last Supper in Matthew 26, we see that Jesus is observing the seder with his disciples in the Upper Room, and it is important to note something there - the institution of the Eucharist, the liturgical text of which we find in Matthew 26:26-30 as well as Luke 22:17-20, took place after the actual meal!  This is one evidence that they are to be treated as two separate observances.  There were also two other practices associated with this meal that need to be noted:

1.  Washing of the feet (John 13:5-12)
2.   Reconcilliation of the brethren, forgiving each other's faults and confession to one another

The account in John 13 has these occurring after the Supper, but among Dunkards and Moravians, this happens prior to the meal itself, as it is believed by them (correctly, I think) that you cannot have fellowship with your brethren if there are issues existing, and thus a "spirit of concord" is not present in the feast if any issues among the brethren are not duly resolved before partaking of the meal.  The Didache, a specific manual of Church discipline that dates back to earliest times, gives specific guidelines for this in reference to the Agape feast:

And when coming together on the Lord's own day, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions. In that manner, your sacrifice will be pure. And do not let anyone coming with a quarrel against a brother join you until they get reconciled, in order that your sacrifice is not impure. For this has been spoken of by the Lord, "in every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great King," says the Lord, "and My name is wonderful among the nations."
(The Didache, Chapter 14)


Many of the same requirements for the Agape Feast, as a matter of fact, also mirror the reception of the Eucharist.  As a matter of fact, it is highly recommended by the early Church that all sin and conflict be dealt with before partaking of the Feast together, because the Agape Feast was also seen as an act of worship, the ultimate expression of Christian fellowship.  As such, it was also seen as a witness to the outside world as well, for if Christians could be seen to practice the love among themselves they taught, it would show the world around them that the love of Christ was a real thing that they too could have.  Thus, although not meant to be evangelistic - non-believers and those not in fellowship with the particular assembly were often discouraged from partaking of the Agape, due to the fact it was an act of fellowship among the brethren - it often was a powerful witness to the sinner and outsider.  The reconcilliation, forgiveness, and footwashing aspects could often be full of emotion too, as it broke down barriers in the Body and brought people closer (I will be doing a separate teaching later on foot-washing, as it is also a forgotten practice in the Church of today too) as well as expressing true humility as brethren to each other.  In short, the actual Agape Feast could be a beautiful experience.

Another custom that was often practiced - and still is by many Old-Order Dunkards - as an act of fellowship was the kiss of peace.  There were two ways this was done, but the Eastern practice - embracing and kissing on first the left and then the right cheek - is I feel the more desirable and authentic way (Dunkards do a kiss on the lips, men to men and women to women - that is the other method, but many people would be uncomfortable with that today, including myself).  The kiss of peace was a way of expressing the love of Christ to fellow believers, and in modern times it has been formalized and depersonalized to a mere handshake in many churches during the offeratory or other parts of the service.  It used to, though, be the standard way of greeting fellow believers.  All of these things likewise were important parts of the Agape Feast as well.
Now to talk about the specifics of the Agape Feast itself.  Ideally, it was always held prior to a Liturgy, usually the night before, and at certain times of the year (although some local congregations have been known to observe it weekly).  It is not a meal in the traditional sense, as you do not eat of it out of hunger - strangely, the traditional observance says you eat your actual meal before partaking of the Agape Feast.  Being it was considered an act of worship, it was eaten in humility and without natural desires and appetites dictating its consumption.  In the Dunkard tradition, the traditional Agape Feast often consisted of boiled beef, a thin beef comsumme, bread, and apple butter, with either milk or water as a drink to accompany it.  In some cases, it was also eaten out of a communal pot, but most today practice eating with individual dishes for their portions.  At the conclusion, the remainder of the food was often given to the poor or less fortunate as an act of charity.  As I have researched the practice though, I believe a better way of doing it is to have roast lamb, fresh pita bread, fresh parsley, and a white cheese with either chaimen (an Armenian hot sauce made with cayenne pepper, cumin, lemon juice, garlic, and fenugreek) or garlic cloves - the latter mirror the "bitter herbs" of the Passover meal. Wine, or a natural fruit juice or water, should also accompany the meal too.  And, although there is no set rubric on when to observe this, I would say that either on the vigil before Easter or Christmas Eve are good times.  Again, when the meal is partaken of, the remainder should also be given to the less-fortunate, such as a homeless ministry or something, and leftovers being taken home is not an option unless there are needy people in the church who could use the food - that would be a mandate then, as we have to take care of our own as a Body first.  It must again be stressed that this is an act of worship and not a dinner party, and therefore it needs to be eaten modestly, in moderation, and with a worshipful attitude. 

Again too, it is important that before the meal a spirit of unity in the Body is present, and therefore mutual confession - the old resolving of ought with our brother if any exists - is essential.  For those of us who are Catholic Christians though, it is an ideal time to also encourage our clergy to offer confessions too, as this is important as well. Then the footwashing, which may be the most humbling of all - I, for one, do not like exposing my naked foot to anyone, and this was a hard thing for me to personally accept, but God uses things like this to teach us humility.  Also, the washing of others' feet is a humbling experience too that is a lost virtue in today's Church - many Catholics do have remnants of this practice on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, but it really needs to be revived as a regular practice.  Finally, the kiss of peace - we, after all, are a spiritual family, and thus need not be afraid to express Christian love to eact other; it is an Agape Feast after all we are experiencing! 

The Agape Feast I feel is something lost on much of today's Church, which unfortunately tends to be a weekly assembly of strangers we say hello to and doesn't have a real sense of community.  The Agape Feast, if revived, could reinforce those communal bonds that we as Christians need to have with each other, and it could also be a time of healing and restoration in the Body as well.  Perhaps this is why today's churches are so weak in their faith - the sense of community, healing, and humility are lacking, and with "name-it-and-claim it" televangelists and "purpose-driven" pastors lifting up the "seeker" and individual often at the expense of the household of faith, it is little wonder America is going to hell in a handbasket! Healing and restoration begin with us, remember, and the Agape Feast is a perfect expression of this very thing.

There are a couple of resources I wish to recommend to you for further study.  If you want to learn more about the Dunkard tradition of the Agape Feast, please read The Love Feast by Frank Ramirez (Elgin, IL:  Brethren Press, 2000).   There is also a revival of this happening among the Maronite Catholic community as well, as they now have a practice called the Tauditho (an Aramaic word meaning "Thanksgiving") that is a Maronite adaptation of the Passover seder.  A guide for observing this, by Maronite priest Fr. Antonio Elfighali, is available online at http://www.maronite-heritage.com/Maronite%20Tauditho%20Meal.php, or you can order the booklet by writing bounaantonio@yahoo.com.  These are some resources that will introduce you to the practice of the Agape Feast as practiced by different Christian traditions.  Also, there are ample references to the practice in the writings of the Early Church that you can read up on yourself, and hopefully this will serve as a guide to direct you.  Thank you again for allowing me to share with you this week, and may the blessings of God our Father be with you all.

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I don't often do this, but I wanted to make a "plug" for something this week as well.  A hometown friend and old schoolmate of mine from my elementary school days, Cheryl Canfield, is a talented singer who has recorded a very nice CD of old hymns in a "country Gospel" style.  Inspired by the old hymnal used in the Free Methodist Church in my hometown of Hendricks, WV, Cheryl  has done a fantastic job staying true to her West Virginia roots.  I had the privelege of hearing a track from the CD, and although not a big fan of "Country Gospel" personally, it was very well-done and she sung it from her heart. If you would like to get the CD, I think she is asking $10 per copy, and you can send your check or money order to the following address and she will make sure you get it:


Cheryl Canfield


RR. 1 Box 178-A

Hambleton,WV 26269