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AGAPE, ag´ɑ-pî or -pê
Primitive Form of Celebration (§ 1).
Final Form of the Agape (§ 2).
Disassociation of Agape and Eucharist (§ 3).
1. Primitive Form of Celebration.
The Greek word agapē (“love,” pl. agapai, Lat. agapæ) was used in the early Church, both Greek and Latin, to denote definite manifestations of brotherly love between believers, and particularly certain meals taken in common which had more or less of a religious character. The earliest mention of such meals is found in Jude 12 (possibly in II Pet. ii. 13). Distinct history begins with Tertullian, in the passage (Apologeticus, xxxix.) commencing: “Our supper bears a name which tells exactly what it is; it is called by the word which in Greek means ‘affection.’” The agape served for the refreshment of the poorer brethren, as well as for the general edification. It was opened and closed with prayer, and after its conclusion one and another gave songs of praise, either from the Bible or of their own composition. These meetings were under the direction of the clergy, to whom (with reference to I Tim. v. 17) a double portion of food and drink was allotted. They were held at the time of the principal meal, and frequently were prolonged until dark. In the period for which Tertullian bears witness, they were not connected with the sacrament of the Eucharist; he says expressly (De corona, iii.) that the Lord instituted the sacrament on the occasion of a meal, while the Church does not so celebrate it, but rather before daybreak. Even apart from the secret nocturnal services of the times of persecution and the observance of the paschal vigil, the Eucharist was regularly celebrated before any meal. Notably was this rule, which is found referred to in Cyprian (Epist., lxiii. 16), established in Tertullian’s time, but—which is decisive for the distinction between Eucharist and agape—it existed in many parts of the Church as early as that of Justin (Apologia, i. 65, 67). The principle, that the Eucharist should be received only fasting, which would exclude any relation with a preceding common meal, and especially with the agape, taking place toward evening, is indirectly evidenced by Tertullian (Ad uxorem, ii. 5); Augustine found it so universally recognized that he was inclined to refer it to one of the ordinances promised by Paul in I Cor. xi. 34; and Chrysostom was so convinced of the antiquity of the rule that he supposed the custom of following it by an ordinary meal to have prevailed in Corinth in Paul’s time. In any case, in the third and fourth centuries the development of the agape was more and more away from any connection with public worship.81
2. Final Form of the Agape.
From the indications of the Syriac Didascalia and the Egyptian liturgical books, as well as the canons of the Councils of Gangra and Laodicea it may be inferred that the giving of these feasts and the inviting to them of widows and the poor was, in the East, one of the forms usually taken by the benevolence of the wealthier members of the Church. The bishop and other clergy were invited, and, if they appeared, were received with special honor and charged with the direction of the assembly. These feasts were given at irregular times and in various places, sometimes in the church itself. This was forbidden by the twenty-eighth canon of Laodicea, at the same time that the fifty-eighth prohibited their celebration in private houses. Secular festivities in connection with the agapæ, which brought upon them the condemnation of the ascetic Eustathians (against whom the Council of Gangra defended them), caused them to be regarded more and more among the orthodox also as incompatible with the dignity of divine worship, so that they gradually became entirely separate from it, and thus tended to fall into disuse.
How popular these feasts were in Africa, in the churches, in the chapels of the martyrs, and at the graves of other Christians, may be seen from the often renewed canon of Hippo (393), which forbids clerics to eat in churches except in dispensing hospitality to travelers, and commands them as far as possible to restrain the people from such meals. The same thing appears in Augustine’s descriptions as well as in the great pains he took to repress grave abuses and, with reference to the practise of the Italian and almost all the other churches, to suppress the agapæ altogether.
3. Disassociation of Agape and Eucharist.
It is not clear what caused the disassociation of the agape from the Eucharist in the first half of the second century. It is a misunderstanding of Pliny’s letter to Trajan (Epist., xcvi.) to suppose that in consequence of the prohibition of hetæriæ (“brotherhoods”) the Christians then abandoned their evening feasts and transferred the Eucharist to the morning; but it is very probable that the constant accusation of impious customs which recalled the stories of Thyestes and of Œdipus were the main reason for the separation of the Eucharist, which was an essential part of their public worship, from the connection, so liable to be misunderstood, with an evening meal participated in by both sexes and all ages. The fact that at one time the two were connected is evidenced not only by Pliny, but about the same time by the Didache, in which, whatever one may think about the relation of the eucharistic prayers to the accompanying liturgical acts (chaps. ix-x.), the opening passage of the second prayer (Gk. meta de to emplēsthēnai) shows that a full meal belonged to the rite there referred to. Just as here the Greek word eucharistia, which from Justin down is employed as a technical term for the sacrament, at least includes a common meal, which is found separated from the sacrament after the middle of the second century, so Ignatius, with whom eucharistia is a usual designation of the sacrament, also employs agapē and agapan to denote the same observance. It is accordingly safe to conclude that in the churches, from Antioch to Rome, with which Ignatius had to do, the so-called agape was connected with the Eucharist, as Pliny shows at the same time for Bithynia and the Didache for Alexandria. The same may be inferred of the two Scriptural passages cited above; and one is led further back by I Cor. xi. 17-34. While Paul distinguishes as sharply as possible the eating of the one bread and the drinking of the blessed chalice from common food and drink (I Cor. x. 3, 16; xi. 23-29), he shows at the same time that in Corinth the two were connected in thought. While he rebukes the disorder of one drinking too much and another going hungry, so as to injure the dignity of the following sacrament, and lays down that eating for the mere satisfaction of hunger ought to take place at home and not in the assembly of the brethren, he is not disposed (as I Cor. xi. 33 shows) to abolish altogether the connection of the sacrament with an actual meal. This connection, then, existing into the first decades of the second century, forms the basis of the history for both Eucharist and agape which diverge from that time on.
The agape or love-feast is practised at present by Mennonites, Dunkards, German Baptists of the Anglo-American type, and other religious bodies. For an able, but not wholly successful, attempt to prove that the Lord’s Supper in the apostolic time was identical with the agape, i.e., that it was nothing but a social feast for the manifestation of brotherly love, consult Norman Fox, Christ in the Daily Meal (New York, 1898).
Bibliography: See Lord’s Supper.
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