The impact of the Greek word agape — which is usually translated as love in English — remains one of the most inspiring aspects of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Agape is the term first used by the early Christians to refer to the meal or “love feast” that Jesus would have for fellowship with His disciples. At His final love feast, the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread and told His disciples that this was His Body; then Jesus took the cup of wine and told His disciples that this was His Blood. Jesus also told His disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine for forgiveness of their sins. Thus, the Holy Eucharist originated during the Last Supper.
By the middle of the third century, the agape feast became separate from the Holy Eucharist, as most Christian Churches began having the Holy Eucharist in the morning and the agape meal in the evening. Of course, we continue to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in Orthodox Churches on Sundays and other holy days, but observing the agape love feast came to an end late in the fourth century.
Agape is also the term that we still use to depict the Orthodox Church services held on Easter — the holiest day of the year for Christians. At the Agape Service, excerpts from the Gospel are read in several foreign languages by various churchgoers to portray the dissemination of Christ’s Resurrection to all people throughout the world. Parishioners hold lighted candles which represent Jesus, the Light of the World, bringing light to mankind. Also, the words “Christos Anesti” or Christ is Risen are proudly proclaimed by all worshipers.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus said that this is the first commandment and that the second commandment is like the first, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Agape signifies a spiritual love that is unconditional, selfless, genuine, and cheerful. In short, it comes from the heart of a person who does not expect anything in return for it. Because of these benevolent qualities, some Christian scholars have gone so far as to translate agape as “charity” as well as love.
Unfortunately, we live in a secular society today in which too many people love money, expensive possessions, and power more than God. Except for a few days around Easter, we fail to seriously recognize the infinite love that Christ provided for us when He allowed Himself to be crucified, so that He could save mankind.
Moreover many people believe that if they frequently go to church they are Christians, but this is a misconception. An American scientist made this point very clear several years ago when he said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to the garage makes you a car.” Attending church at least two or three times each month is better than rarely attending, but being a Christian also requires more critical elements — especially spiritual love toward God and unconditional love of our fellow man.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples one command; namely, to love one another as He loved them. Jesus knew that His disciples would carry out this command and that it would be passed on to future generations forever.
Agape continues to be the “summum bonum” or greatest good for Orthodox Christians today. To really achieve our goal of being Christians, we must humbly ask God for repentance for our sins; we must show compassion for our neighbors; and most importantly, we must genuinely love God, keeping in mind that everything we have comes from Him.