By Aaron Linville
Photos Courtesy Bill Ray
Imagine an almost completely dysfunctional community composed of religious dissenters. A community in which it was not uncommon for some to be called “Antichrist” and “the Beast.” A community that was so dysfunctional that one of the original members left town, built his own house, and waited for the community to implode. This was reality in Herrnhut, Germany in 1726 and 1727.
The town of Herrnhut began in 1722. Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf met a few men who wanted to leave Catholic Moravia so that they could practice Christianity as their ancestors had done. Their ancestors were members of a reformation church that predated Luther by half a century. Zinzendorf gave them permission to live on his estate, an opportunity they quickly accepted. As the community grew, about the only thing that all the residents had in common was that they were religious dissenters of some kind. There were Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists, and a few Schwenkfelders.
The natural outcome of all these different people living together was discord, and it was evident immediately. Over the next several years, the animosity grew and created the situation described in the opening paragraph.
Despite the fact that much of the hostility was directed at him, Zinzendorf held meetings with every member of the community, many times late into the night. His goal was to find a way for all these people to live together on his land, though he was in no way obliged to keep them on his land. After much hard work, Zinzendorf brought the whole community together on May 12, 1727. He presented them with the Brotherly Agreement: rules for a voluntary religious organization that emphasized practical Christian behavior and would exist as a part of the Lutheran Church. The Herrnhuters unanimously agreed to it. This was the first of many positive steps forward.
Then, on August 13, 1727, something incredible happened after a communion and confirmation service. This day has been seen as the culmination of a revival that began with the signing of the Brotherly Agreement. It has been called the Moravian Pentecost. It has been known as the birthday of the Moravian Church. By the power of the Holy Spirit and the incredible amount of work that they had all put into solving their differences, their identity changed. They went from being a part of a deeply divided and fractured town into a single community that put communal needs and the work of the Savior ahead of individual desires.
The Herrnhuters stayed so long after the service that Zinzendorf decided to provide a simple meal for them. This simple meal, on such a dramatic day, is the reason Moravians all over the world still hold lovefeasts on our holy days. We hold lovefeasts because it reminds us of the awe-inspiring work God has done for us, and the amazing work that God has for us to do.
August 13, 1727 was not the first lovefeast, though. Other pietist groups held lovefeasts during the 18th century, both before and after 1727. All of them, including the lovefeasts of today’s Moravian Church, are rooted in the early church and scripture.
In the book of Acts, there are two clear references to the early church eating together. The first is immediately after the record of the initial converts on the Day of Pentecost. In the first description of the new community, we read “All the believers were together and had everything in common…Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:44-45, NIV). The whole community of new believers came together every day to worship and share meals. No distinctions seem to have been made between believers. All were welcome at these meals.
A few chapters later in Acts, we find that some of the widows were not being served their daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1-7). The solution was not to stop holding the communal meals, but to set apart seven who would ensure that the whole community received food during the meals.
Christians never stopped eating together, but over the next several centuries, the practice of holding communal meals for the entire body of Christ in one area ceased. Even in the first century, this practice was not consistent. The disparity in and fracturing of the community in Corinth around eating together and remembering the Last Supper caused Paul to address it in his first letter to them (see I Corinthians 11:17-34).
Many pietist groups in the 18th century recognized that the communal meals of the early believers were a Biblical precedent for how they could follow the leading of God by sharing meals together. Their lovefeasts were meaningful, but like the early church, this practice eventually fell by the wayside. The reason Moravians still share lovefeasts is because of the powerful experience of the Holy Spirit blessed us with on August 13th.
Over the last 286 years, the way we use and share lovefeasts in the Moravian Church has changed. Moravians no longer use them to celebrate the birthdays of important members of our communities. We still use them to observe holy days, like August 13th and Christmas, and to celebrate other important events like Thanksgiving and church anniversaries.
The exact structure of a lovefeast varies from congregation to congregation and province to province, but the flow is typically the same in the United States. Often times there is prelude by that congregation’s brass band (part of the great tradition of Moravian music). After a word of welcome, the congregation begins to sing, and aside from a few brief moments, the music does not stop until the lovefeast is over. As a few verses are sung, the dieners (German for servers) come into the sanctuary and distribute a simple item to eat, usually a bun. After everyone has something to eat, the dieners process out and return with a beverage, usually coffee, to distribute. After everyone is served, the blessing is prayed, and everyone partakes of the simple meal together.
While the congregation is eating, there is almost always special music that is performed by the choir, brass band, or other musical group in the congregation. Once everyone has had time to eat, the dieners return to collect the cups while the congregation sings again. When this is done, the service is usually over, aside from the benediction and postlude. For Christmas though, there is one more beautiful component to the lovefeast.
After everyone has eaten and the dieners have left with the cups, they return – this time with candles. While the singing continues, everyone receives a candle. The flame is taken from the Christ Candle and passed from one person to the next until everyone has a lit candle and the electric lights dim. At this time, we sing “Morning Star, O Cheering Sight,” a favorite Moravian hymn that is sung antiphonally, usually led by the children of the congregation. Afterwards, the music crescendos to the climax of the service: the last hymn. During the last hymn, we all raise our candles and fill the sanctuary with light, reminding us that we are the light of the world and that the love of God brings light and life. I have never left a Christmas Candlelight Lovefeast without feeling the power of God, and a sense of awe of the birth of the Savior.
If you would like to experience a Moravian Christmas Lovefeast, find out if there is a Moravian congregation near you. Go to Moravian.org, click on ‘Find Us’ then ‘Find A Congregation.’ Check out their website or give them a call. Odds are that it will either be the Sunday before Christmas or Christmas Eve.
If you would like more information on Moravians, dig around on Moravian.org. You can also visit some of our historical sites like Old Salem and Historic Bethabara in Winston-Salem, NC, or Historic Bethlehem and Historic Nazareth in PA.