As we near the end of the Lenten Fast, I’d like to draw our attention to the differences between fasting in the Eastern church and the Western church. Actually, I’d like to draw attention more than anything to the differences between the attitude towards fasting in the East and the West.
Some people might know about the vast difference in the fasting regulations between the two great churches. In the West, we are told to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (which means one normal meal and two small meals not to equal that one normal meal) and abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday. In the East, on the other hand, a common tradition is that every day of Lent is a day of fasting and abstinence, and abstinence applies not only to meat, but also includes items such as fish, wine and oil. Why such a difference in these practices? Is it because the East is just more holy or more serious about Lent? I think the reason is due more to the underlying attitudes towards rules and regulations in the East and the West.
- In the West, a regulation is seen as the minimum requirement and failing to follow it is perceived as a serious failure, perhaps even a sin.
- In the East, a regulation is seen as an ideal to strive for and failing to follow it is perceived as an opportunity to do better in the future.
So in the West, the regulations for fasting are much less stringent than in the East, because a failure to follow them is seen as a more egregious action. In the East, the regulations are much more strict, but failing to live up to them is not seen as serious of a failure.
I do not think that either attitude is necessarily better than the other – both have their advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the Western attitude is that regulations are always taken seriously, but the disadvantage is that one can become legalistic or even prideful if he follows the law. The advantage of the Eastern attitude is that one always sees the ideal as something to strive for and this keeps you humble, but the disadvantage is that the wide gap between practice and regulation might be so wide as to seem insurmountable or make the regulation appear unrealistic.
All Christians should work, with the help of God’s grace and a good spiritual director, to make sacrifices that are in keeping with their state of life. The worst thing to do, at any time, is to compare one’s own sacrifices with anyone else’s. But as we near the end of Lent, ask for God’s help in persevering in your own resolutions so that you might be properly prepared for the resurrection of our Lord at Easter!