Good Friday Definition and Summary
Good Friday is the Friday of Holy Week, which commemorated the crucifixion, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ. Good Friday is a fast day in the Catholic Church, and falls within the Paschal Triduum.
Basic Facts About Good Friday
Liturgical Color(s): Red (formerly black)
Type of Holiday: Fast day
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Jesus' Passion, crucifixion, and death
Alternate Names: Good Friday of the Lord's Passion, Great Friday
Good Friday is the Friday within Holy Week. It is a time of fasting and penance, commemorating the suffering, crucifixion, and death of Christ.
For Christians, this day commemorates not just a historical event, but also the sacrificial death of Christ, which, along with the resurrection, is the heart of the Christian faith. The Catholic Catechism states this clearly:
Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men (CCC 1992).
This is based on the words of Saint Paul: "[Believers are] justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood... (Romans 3:24-25, KJV). The customs and prayers associated with Good Friday typically focus on the theme of Christ's sacrificial death for our sins.
The evening (at sunset) of Good Friday begins the second day of the Paschal Triduum. The major Good Friday worship service begins in the afternoon at 3:00 p.m. (the time Jesus is thought to have died). Various traditions and customs are associated with the Western celebration of Good Friday. The singing (or preaching) of the Passion of Saint John's Gospel consists of reading or singing parts of John's Gospel (currently John 18:1-19:42 in the Catholic Church).
The Veneration of the Cross is also common. This is when Christians approach a wooden cross and venerate it, often by kneeling before it, or kissing part of it. In addition to these traditions, Holy Communion with the reserved host is practiced. In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, no Masses are said on Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Instead, the reserved host from the Holy Thursday Mass is used. This is called the "Mass of the Pre-Sanctified."
Many Churches also offer the Stations of the Cross, also called the "Way of the Cross," on Good Friday. This is a devotion in which 14 events surrounding the death of Jesus are commemorated. Most Catholic Churches have 14 images of Jesus' final days displayed throughout the parish, for use in public Stations of the Cross services.
Another devotion, started by the Jesuit Alphonso Messia in 1732 and now less common, is the Tre Ore or "Three Hours." This is often held from noon until 3:00 p.m. and consists of seven sermons on the seven last words of Christ. This service has been popular in many Protestant churches.
The Eastern Churches have different customs for the day they call "the Great Friday." The Orthodox Church begins the day with Matins (Morning Prayer), where the "Twelve Gospels" is chanted, which consists of 12 passages drawn from the Passion narratives. In the morning, the "Little Hours" follow one after the other, consisting of Gospel, Epistle, and Prophet readings. Vespers (Evening Prayer) ends with a solemn veneration of the epitaphion, an embroidered veil containing scenes of Christ's burial. Compline (Night Prayer) includes a lamentation placed on the Virgin Mary's lips. On Good Friday night, a symbolic burial of Christ is performed. Traditionally, Chaldean and Syrian Christians cease using their customary Shlama greeting ("peace be with you") on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, because Judas greeted Christ this way. They use the phrase "The light of God be with your departed ones" instead. In Russia, the tradition is to bring out a silver coffin, bearing a cross, and surrounded with candles and flowers. The faithful creep on their knees and kiss and venerate the image of Christ's body painted on the "winding sheet" (shroud).
The celebration of Good Friday is ancient, and some of the practices associated with Good Friday are attested to by Egeria in the fourth century. The day gradually became a time of penance and fasting as the anniversary of the death of Christ. The name "Good Friday" possibly comes from "God's Friday," although the exact reason for the current name is unclear.
The custom of venerating the cross on Good Friday probably originated in Jerusalem in the seventh or eighth century and continues to this day in many Western Churches. Pre-sanctified Masses are referenced in the documents of the Quinisext Council, which was held in AD 692, which means the practice pre-dates the seventh century. The Council mentions pre-sanctified liturgies as occurring primarily during Lent. Various churches observe Good Friday in addition to Catholics and Eastern Christians. Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans all observe Good Friday to varying degrees.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions, Symbols, and Typology
Traditions: Veneration of the Cross, the Stations of the Cross, preaching/singing of the Passion
Symbols: Cross and crucifix
Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing the Crucifixion: Abel's murder (Genesis 4:1-15), Joseph's imprisonment with two thieves (Genesis 40), martyrdom of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22)
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are the Western Catholic fast guidelines for Good Friday? Fasting means eating only one full meatless (no animal flesh) meal on this day. However, one may still eat breakfast and even a lunch in addition to a full meal if the two additional small meals do not add up to a second full meal. Snacking is not allowed. Drinking coffee, tea, juices, etc, between meals is permitted on fast days. The requirements are slightly different for those of certain ages. Fasting is only required of those from ages 18-59, although parents are expected to teach their children the reasons behind their fasting, etc. Those with health conditions are excluded. Note that some Western Bishop Conferences, Eastern Catholic Rites, and Orthodox Christians have different fasting guidelines, so it is wise to check with your local parish about expectations. These are simply the minimum expectations. Additional forms of self-denial, within reason, can also be spiritually beneficial.
2. What is the Paschal Triduum? The Paschal Triduum, often called the Easter Triduum or simply the Triduum, consists of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This includes the Great Easter Vigil, the high point of the Triduum. The word "Triduum" comes from the Latin and means "three days." It begins the evening of Maundy Thursday and ends at Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday. So, the Triduum consists of three full days which begin and end in the evening. It technically is not part of Lent (at least liturgically), but Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are still reckoned as part of the traditional 40-day Lenten fast. The Triduum celebrates the heart of Christian salvation and faith: the death and resurrection of Christ, and is thus the high point of the liturgical year. For more information, visit our Paschal Triduum page.
This page written by David Bennett.