Lenten Fasting in the Eastern Churches

An interesting icon of Christ carrying his Cross, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, inasmuch as it is signed in Latin (!) by its painter: “Nikolaos Tzafouris painted [it]”.

I’ve already posted a couple of times in the way of encouraging everyone to get ready for Lent by giving up excuses and thinking carefully about what one might give up — not just “doing something extra” or reflexively “giving up chocolate”.

An email I recently received piqued my curiosity about what Lent involves for members of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Here in the territory of the Diocese of Birmingham we have parishes of two of the Eastern Churches: Melkite and Maronite; there are about 20 other Eastern Catholic Churches worldwide (many with parishes in other parts of our country) besides those two, as well.

Consulting the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (canon law for the Eastern Churches), we read in canon 882 that “On the days of penance the Christian faithful are obliged to observe fast or abstinence in the manner established by the particular law of their Church sui juris.” So there is no universal rule for all the Eastern Churches; each one has its own rich set of traditions, some of which overlap with others, some of which don’t.

That last statement bears out when you look at what Maronites vs. Melkites do: let’s just say that both are comparable to our current Roman/Latin Rite rules, but I would say slightly more challenging.

First, let’s review what is required of Latin or Roman Rite Catholics: we are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting, for us, means eating only one full meal and perhaps two snacks that do not add up to another full meal, if needed to maintain strength. Moreover, fasting is only required from ages 18 to 59. Then, we are to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. That is for age 14 until death. Exempt are pregnant/nursing women and all others who cannot fulfill these requirements without risk to their health.

Canon 1250 of the Code of Canon Law defines “the whole season of Lent” as a penitential time; hence we also adopt other penitential disciplines during it, beyond the fasting and abstinence that may be required of us depending up on our age and our health.

Now let’s see what is required for Maronites and Melkites.

I went to the Maronite Eparchy web site and could not find anything. But I did find it in an issue of their official newsletter from last year (link). Here is what it says about fasting (keep in mind this is from February 2018 — this year’s guidelines, if they are different, do not yet appear to be available online):

The Most Reverend Bishops Gregory Mansour and A. Elias Zaidan have issued the following Lenten guidelines for the Maronites of the U.S.:
> All Maronites who are physically capable are to abstain from meat on Ash Monday and all Fridays of Lent.
> Ash Monday and the Great Friday of the Crucifixion are also days of fasting. Fasting in the Maronite Church involves eating and drinking nothing at all (except water and medicine) from midnight until noon. The rest of the day normal meals can be taken, but without meat. All Maronites who are physically capable are to fast on these two days.

So these guidelines are similar to ours, with less generous age restrictions. You can’t eat till noon, but then you can take “regular meals”, so you can basically have two full meals. So — similar.

Now take a look at what the Melkites require. This comes from an online brochure from the Melkite Eparchy web site (link):

The minimum asked by our Church for Lent is that we abstain from meat on the following days: the first day of Great Lent, all Fridays, and the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week. It is also expected that we abstain from meat on most Fridays of the year and strongly recommended that we abstain from meat on every Wednesday of Great Lent as well. We should abstain from all food and drink from midnight to noon at least on the first day of Great Lent, and the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week, if not every day of the Lenten season.

So, slightly more rigorous than the Maronites, to include the entire Triduum, not just Good Friday. And an exhortation about keeping the more rigorous discipline EVERY day of Lent.

Particularly impressive, though, is what it says is the traditional Eastern discipline for Lenten fasting (same brochure):

> Abstaining from all food and drink from midnight until noon on all weekdays; and
> Not eating any meat or dairy products during the whole time of Lent.

When I was in college, I knew some Eastern Catholics who followed the old customs. It is impressive — and very rigorous.

What this review of different traditions reminds us is that although we have different cultures underlying the particular Churches we are part of (whether Roman or Melkite or Maronite or other), there is a universality to the season of Lent that includes many commonalities. One of the great things about Lent is that we are really all in it together.

Have you made your preparations yet? I have been asking my parishioners to consider offering their sacrifices for the continued purification of the Church. Let’s make this a good Lent — and begin preparing now.

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