As the season of Lent, a period of reflection in preparation for Easter, comes to a close, many Christians observe Good Friday. This day, unsurprisingly, occurs on the Friday after Holy Thursday and before Easter Sunday. This year, Good Friday takes place on April 2. But what is Good Friday, and why do we celebrate it?
“Good Friday is the day Christians commemorate the suffering and execution of Jesus by the Roman-occupying empire in Jerusalem,” says professor and Jesuit priest Bruce Morrill, PhD, Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. “The day focuses on the passion and death of Jesus.”
It is often a solemn day, observed by some with a day of fasting. It's then followed by the three days that Jesus was laid in the tomb, before rising on Easter Sunday.
While we know the general idea of why the day is recognized, there are still a few questions that you might not know the answers to about this holy day. For instance, why do we call it "good" if it's a solemn day? And how long has it been observed? You might be surprised by the traditions around this day, and what it means for the Easter season.
Why do we celebrate Good Friday?
The day has been commemorated for many centuries. “We have historical evidence from the 4th century diary of a wealthy woman, Egeria, who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” says Morrill. “She wrote of her travels and included how Christians kept Palm Sunday and other rituals.” Eventually, as Christianity spread, the day was observed by other early churches in places such as Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople.
Why is it called Good Friday?
It is likely that this name comes from the word "good" once meaning "holy," a theory supported by many linguistics and even the Oxford English Dictionary. Some linguistics and historians debate the theory that good might also come from it once being called "God's Friday." However, many cannot find a link between the two words, as Slate explains.
How is Good Friday celebrated?
Different ways of honoring the day have evolved, and many traditions and popular devotions still are practiced today.
In the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi popularized a symbolic pilgrimage if you couldn’t make one to Jerusalem, known as Stations, or Way, of the Cross, says Morrill. The devotion includes crosses spaced at intervals (both indoors and out) alongside art such as paintings or sculptures depicting pivotal scenes from Jesus’s life. People stop to pray, meditate, and read or hear Biblical passages at each station. It’s most commonly prayed during Lent and especially on Good Friday.
Passion plays, which dramatize the final days of Jesus’s life, also started in the Middle Ages. One held in Oberammergau, Germany, has been performed every ten years all the way back to 1634.
Others are held annually in various places across the country such as San Antonio, Texas; Southington, Connecticut; and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Some faithful visit seven different churches on Good Friday, spending a moment of prayer at each. Others attend a service based on the seven last words (or direct quotes) of Jesus with readings of Bible passages, a sermon, prayers and hymns.
Fasting and attending religious services are part of the commemoration for many on Good Friday. For example, for Roman Catholics, the religious service on Good Friday is the middle part of a three-day-long liturgy, or official rites, called the Triduum. “It’s the most sacred liturgy of the year,” says Morrill.
Anglican, Orthodox, and many Protestant faiths also hold special services on Good Friday to remember the suffering of Jesus in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
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