Communal Sacramental Meals
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31. Communal Sacramental Meals

The Lord's Supper

The Lord's SupperAs Christianity developed, different kinds of communal sacramental meals sometimes called the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion or the Mass also appeared. They differed from one another in different places. For Christian families, however, participation in these was important according to Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches."

Upper Room

The Upper RoomThe Lord's Supper is one important sacrament that is celebrated on the first day of each week that is on Sunday. This is in continuity with the Jewish meals of Jesus with his disciples, especially the Last Supper in the Upper Room before Jesus was arrested. In Acts 2.42 we read, "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting." Another lesser-known of the early sacramental meals was the "agape feast" or the "love feast." This is a combination of a supper for all and then followed by the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. This may have been the origin of the breaking of the bread in Acts 2.1-2, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer." It may or may not be the same as the Holy Communion or Eucharist of today.

Agape Meals

Early Church ServiceThere may also be a reference to communal sacramental meals in the Epistle of Jude 1.12 where Jude, the brother of Jesus, writes that inappropriate deeds are "spots on your agapes," but the textual variants make it unclear. When Ignatius stipulates that every genuine Eucharist should be sanctioned by the bishop, he went on to add two other events in the same category, Baptism and "Doing Agape" meaning taking part in the Agape Meal.

Ignatius Comments

Many think that in the early years, the Eucharist and the Agape Meal were the same event, but that they become distinct later. If so, they were already different, by the early second century in Antioch and other parts of the province of Asia, where Ignatius (35-108 AD) who is called "the God-bearer" or "the fire-bearer" was writing. Ignatius was an Apostolic Father, student of John the Apostle and the third bishop of Antioch. He wrote a series of letters on ecclesiology or study of the church, the sacraments, and the role of bishops. In Rome, he was martyred by being fed to wild beasts.

Christian House Meal

Martyrdom of NicholasTertullian's description of the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist or the Agape Meal is sometimes called a ceremonial Christian house meal. "The Acts of Perpetua and Echeitos" was a historical account of Perpetua's passion before her death and that of her slave Felicitas in the Carthage arena in 203 AD. She wrote this herself before her death as described by Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches." She related that on the eve of their martyrdom, those in prison celebrated their last Christian house meal as agape. Tertullian (160-220 AD), who was a prolific writer in Carthage in Roman North Africa, described agape meals as what we later know it had become, a meal held out of familial duty to help those in need, that is, to feed the hungry of the community. This is in contrast to what we know about the later order of the Eucharist, reading, and teaching.

Contents of the Meal

Tertullian's description of the agape meal followed the order of the classical symposium, first the house meal, then drinking and conversation or entertainment. In Tertullian's description, there was prayer, then the meal with drinking, then the washing of hands, lights brought in, then recitation of scripture and singing, ending again with prayer. There was no indication that what he was describing was also the Eucharist. Rather, it was a true meal held in a private house, into which the less fortunate were brought to be nourished both physically and spiritually. As such, it probably took the form of an extended family festival.

"Communal Sacramental Meals"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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