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Reviving the Love Feast

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Anyone can host and anyone can bless. Find the divine—and community—in a meal.

Early followers of “The Way,” what Christianity was first called, gathered secretly in homes and in the shadowy catacombs of ancient Rome. One can imagine them sneaking around in the twilight hours with baskets of bread and fish, wineskins full and hearts pounding as they avoided suspicious Roman eyes. What were they doing in secret? They were feasting!

Not a Consecration but a Love Feast

You might assume they were gathering to celebrate what we now know as the Eucharist, the bread and wine consecrated to become the body of Christ. But followers of The Way had another sacred meal: the Love Feast. For three to four centuries, early Christians celebrated this feast, also called the Agape (Greek for divine or unconditional love).

The Love Feast arose alongside the Eucharist but was distinct from it. It was a time for fellowship over a true meal, not the simple, somber ritual with a mouthful of bread and a sip of wine that we’ve become so familiar with.

Frescos and written descriptions of these meals recount a menu of fish, bread, wine, and honey. What’s more interesting is that some paintings depict women performing the role of celebrant, before they were restricted from such priestly acts. These paintings depict a woman presenting what appears to be a goblet of wine and proclaiming, “To love!” as the dinner guests respond, “Misce nobis!” or “Mix it up for us!” (Translation taken from Brian Muraresku’s The Immortality Key.)

So what happened to this festive, celebratory gathering, and how can we glean some sustenance from this ancient meal?

The Love Feast: Beginning With a Stranger

The Love Feast is thought to be inspired by the meals Jesus shared with his disciples after the resurrection, one of which occurs on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and another at Lake Tiberias (John 21). In both stories, the disciples are in retreat, returning to their previous way of life with their tails between their legs.

In Luke’s gospel, two disciples are leaving Jerusalem lost and confused by what they’ve just witnessed. A stranger appears, and they don’t recognize that it is their friend Jesus. They explain to him all that has just happened in Jerusalem. Still unrecognized, Jesus responds by calling the pair fools, and lectures them on messianic expectations.

At the lake, some of the disciples return to their old trade of fishing. Jesus appears, and, again, his disciples don’t realize it’s him. He asks if they have any fish and encourages them to cast their nets over the right side of their boat. Suddenly their nets are full, so full that they can’t haul them in. Only then does one of the disciples say, “It is the Lord!”

Peter, who apparently had been naked, puts on some clothes and jumps into the lake, swimming to Jesus, while the other disciples continue to struggle to bring in the bountiful catch. By the time they get to shore, Jesus has already started a fire with fish and bread on it. He proceeds to feed them breakfast and famously interrogates Peter: “Do you love me?” If you do, he tells them, then “feed my sheep” and “follow me.”

Similarly, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are clueless about the identity of this stranger. In an act of hospitality, they invite him to stay and dine with them. The climax of the story occurs in a series of cascading verbs as the stranger sits, takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it. Just like that, “[T]heir eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

To Love, Share, and Eat!

The Love Feast is thus imbued with the meaning and themes of these stories: abundance, welcoming the stranger, brash imperfect faith, mystery, and, most of all, enjoying fellowship with God and each other over a meal. This tradition is unencumbered by the trappings of ritual and creed, there are no required prayers or prerequisites for admission. Anyone can host and anyone can bless the chalice.

[Read: “Preparing Love in the Kitchen.”]

This long-lost feast reminds us of the sacredness of breaking bread together, as well as its potentially revelatory effects. In such a meal, a stranger becomes a friend, a community is formed, and the divine dines with us, as we toast in the ancient language of the first Christians, “To love!”

In a world where people are always hungering and thirsting, perhaps a feast (of both food and love) is what is most needed. Try hosting your own Love Feast, where you invite those folks who are also looking for sustenance and community. Maybe you read the story of Lake Tiberias from John’s gospel, or, like the two disciples in Emmaus, you reflect on all the reasons you are confused and dismayed by the world we live in. At the end of the evening, you can be sure that you have feasted on love and that the divine was feasting with you.

Are your heart and stomach rumbling now? Try building community with meal-swapping.

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