Christ dies on Good Friday. The early followers of Jesus believed that he was the Messiah, but did not understand what that meant. Chittister rightly comments, “Good Friday is the saddest day in the liturgical year…on this day, hope died” (147, 148). His followers felt confused, disillusioned, and depressed. All hope died with Christ on the cross.
In light of this, it seems obvious to ask, “So, what’s good about it?” “Good” certainly cannot describe Jesus’ experience on Good Friday. Robert Webber answers that “in view of the death of Jesus as a day when the powers of evil were put to flight and dethroned, it was indeed a good day” (130). Good Friday is good because of what Christ accomplished on that day.
How did Good Friday develop? Provance addresses this question, “Good Friday appears not to have been commemorated until the fourth century (Jerusalem), as the earlier church appears to have begun the solemn part of the Pascha with the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening…” (63). Initially, all the events of Christ’s last week were celebrated together. As I noted in my article on the Triduum, the Jerusalem Church in the fourth century decided to celebrate the final week of Christ’s life in a more historical fashion and divided the unitive Pascha into what is now celebrated as Holy Week, especially the Triduum (White 51-53).
What is Good Friday? Put simply, it “memorializes the death of Jesus” (Provance 63). The Book of Worship says, “The Order of Good Friday is intended to rehearse the passion story of our Savior Jesus Christ” (216). Good Friday is a major holy day in the church. The intention of Good Friday worship really goes beyond “memorializing” or “rehearsing”. Good Friday worship anticipates our spiritual entry into the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
How do we celebrate Good Friday? Good Friday may be celebrated in one of three ways, or in a combination of two of the three. Robert Webber says, “These services include the Way of the Cross, the Three Hours Devotion, and the Veneration of the Cross” (131). Each of these services traces its origin to fourth century Jerusalem where these services could be observed at the actual locations.
The Way of the Cross uses the fourteen Stations of the Cross, which were standardized in the seventeenth century, to journey with Jesus from Pilate’s house to Mount Calvary (Webber 131). Nine of the stations come directly from Scripture; the other five from popular Christian tradition (Webber 131).
The Three Hours Devotion uses the last words of Christ from the cross to enter his suffering. Originating in fourth century Jerusalem, it was revived and standardized in seventeenth century Peru (Webber 132). Using Scripture readings, prayer, and silence, this service guides the worshipper into Christ’s suffering upon the cross.
Lastly, the Veneration of the Cross “consists of three parts: the service of the Word with the intercessions, the veneration of the cross, and holy communion” (Webber 133). In addition to Scripture readings, prayer, and silence, extended intercessory prayer forms a major portion of the service. Veneration of the cross often incorporates a cross carried into the sanctuary, pausing for relevant Scripture readings, and remembering it as “the instrument of our salvation” (Webber 134).
Spiritually, each service invites us to take up our cross and enter with Jesus into his suffering and death. We find ourselves spiritually identifying with Christ. In many traditions, a fast is observed on Good Friday, which may continue through Holy Saturday.
What happens after Good Friday? Good Friday leads us to Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil.
Book of Worship: United Church of Christ (New York: United Church of Christ Office for Church Life and Leadership, 1986).
Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: the Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
Provance, Brett Scott. Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009).
Webber, Robert. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).
White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980).