Good Friday1 (also called "Great Friday" or "Holy Friday") is the most somber day of the entire year. A silence pervades, socializing is kept to a minimum, things are done quietly; it is a day of mourning; it is a funeral. The Temple of the Body of Christ is destroyed, capping the the penitential seasons begun on Septuagesima Sunday and becoming more intense throughout Lent. Traditional Catholics wear black, cover their mirrors, extinguish candles and any lamps burning before icons, keep amusements and distractions down, and go about the day in great solemnity.
Jesus was put on the Cross at the very end of the third hour (the time between 9 and noon), and almost the sixth hour. He died at the ninth hour:
Mark 15:25, 33
And it was the third hour, and they crucified Him... And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole earth until the ninth hour.
Because Jesus was on the Cross between the hours of Noon and 3:00 PM, these three hours today are considered the most sacred of all. A devotion called "Tre Ore" or "Three Hours' Agony" might be held at this time; if not, you can do it yourself by meditating on His Passion -- reading the Gospel narratives of the Passion, making the Stations of the Cross by yourself, praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, praying the Litany of the Passion, etc. Draw the curtains, take the phone off the hook, turn off televisions and radios, quiet your environment and yourself, and meditate on what Christ has done for you. At 3:00, "The Hour" He died, the atmosphere should be as if you are standing next to the deathbed of your father who died a moment ago.
Catholics also focus their attention on Mary this day and tomorrow (Holy Saturday), empathizing with the pain she endured as Our Lady of Sorrows. In another break in the tradition of veiling statues since Passion Sunday, they might dress the image of Our Lady in a black dress or veil, placing flowers of mourning before it in her honor.
Though a somber atmosphere will last until the Easter Vigil, after "The Hour" (3:00 PM) passes, it eases a bit, and life can go back to a "somber normal." The phone can put back on the hook, etc., but candles and other symbols of Christ shouldn't be used, music shouldn't be played, raucous games should be eliminated, etc., while Christ is "in His Tomb" -- i.e., until after Vigil of Holy Saturday when Eastertide officially begins.
No true Mass is offered today (or tomorrow until the Vigil tomorrow evening); instead a liturgy called the "Mass of the Presanctified" is offered , which is not a true Mass because no consecration takes place. Instead, we consume Hosts consecrated at yesterday's Mass. Vestment colors will be black, and the liturgy consists of lessons, prayer, St. John's version of the Passion, and ends with a long series of prayers for various intentions: the Church, the Pope, the faithful, those engaged in public affairs, catechumens, the needs of the faithful, unity, the conversion of the Jews, the conversion of infidels. These intentions are called the Great Intercessions, and we kneel after each.
Then the Cross will be unveiled and and elevated to be adored by our kneeling three times before it at the words "Venite, adorémus" (come, let us adore). We kneel thrice because He was mocked thrice: in the high priest's courtyard, in Pilate's house, and on Mt. Calvary. Then the priest lays the Cross on a cushion and covers it with a white veil to symbolize the Entombment. He takes off his shoes, like Moses before God, and kneels three times as the choir chants. He and his acolytes kneel and kiss the Cross.
The Cross is held up for us, and we file past - - men first, then women -- to kneel and kiss the Cross while the choir sings the Improperia (the Reproaches) of Christ, in which Our Lord reminds of us all He has done for us and our ingratitude towards Him. Note the use of the singular "thee" in these Reproaches. Our Lord is speaking to you. The first three of the twelve Reproaches are:
O My people, wha have I done to thee? Or wherein have I afflicted thee? Answer Me. Because I led thee out of the land of Egypt, thou hast prepared a Cross for thy Savior.
Because I led thee out through the desert forty years: and fed thee with manna, and brought thee into a land exceeding good, thou has prepared a Cross for thy Savior.
What more ought I to have done for thee, that I have not done? I planted thee, ineed, My most beautiful vineyard: and thou has become exceeding bitter to Me: for in My thirst thou gavest Me vinegar to drinkL and with a lance thou hast pierced the side of thy Savior.
A second choir responds to each of those Reproaches with a trisagion in Greek and Latin. You might recognize its English translation if you've ever prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet:
O holy God!
O holy God!
O holy strong One!
O holy strong One!
O holy immortal One, have mercy on us.
O holy immortal One, have mercy on us!
The remaining nine Reproaches are answered with the response " O my people, what have I done to thee? or wherein have I afflicted thee? Answer me." ("Popule meus, quid feci tibi? aut in quo constristavi te? responde mihi."). The words evoke awe in reminding us of our ancient Israelite heritage -- and evoke humility in recalling how our ancestors failed repeatedly:
For thy sake I scourged Egypt with its first-born: and thou didst deliver Me up to be scourged.
I led thee out of Egypt having drowned Pharao in the Red Sea: and thou to the chief priests didst deliver Me.
I opened the sea before thee: and thou with a spear didst open My side.
I went before thee in a pillar of cloud: and thou didst lead Me to the judgment hall of Pilate.
I fed thee with manna in the desert; and thou didst beat Me with blows and scourges.
I gave thee the water of salvation from the rock to drink: and thou didst give Me gall and vinegar.
For thy sake I struck the kings of the Chanaanites: and thou didst strike My head with a reed.
I gave thee a royal scepter: and thou didst give My head a crown of thorns.
I exalted thee with great strength: and thou didst hang Me on the gibbet of the Cross.
After the Reproaches, we receive Communion, receiving Hosts consecrated at yesterday's Mass.
It is customary for churches to offer the Way of the Cross devotion on this day, especially around 3:00, the hour of His death. And, again, there may be a tenebrae service (consisting of the Matins and Lauds for Holy Saturday).
Our Lord was laid in the tomb owned by St. Joseph of Arimethea, at a site over which stands now the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, first built on the spot by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In Jesus's time, the tomb was outside the city; by the time St. Helena was told of it, it was inside the city walls because Hadrian expanded the city's perimeter -- and had built a pagan temple over the site. The basilica built by St. Helena was destroyed by Caliph al-Hakim in A.D. 1009, and was later re-built over time. 2
The exact spot where "the New Adam" was crucified is marked inside the Basilica, and is said to stand over the place where the first Adam was buried. Matthew tells us what happened when Our Lord's Soul left His Body:
And behold the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks were rent.
Tradition tells us that among those rocks which were rent were those beneath the Cross, and that His Blood dripped down into the crevices (visible today) and reached the spot where the first Adam was interred. The Blood of the New Adam covers the sins of the first Adam! 3 A chapel to the first Adam sits under the area marked as the place Our Lord died.
We know the names of the thieves between whom Jesus was cruficied from the apocryphal "Acts of Pilate" (or "Gospel of Nicodemus"), attributed to St. Nicodemus, the member of the Sanhedrin who, along with St. Joseph of Arimethea, entombed Jesus (John 19:39). Book IX:5 reads
Then Pilate commanded the veil to be drawn before the judgement-seat whereon he sat, and saith unto Jesus: Thy nation hath convicted Thee as being a king: therefore have I decreed that Thou shouldest first be scourged according to the law of the pious emperors, and thereafter hanged upon the Cross in the garden wherein Thou wast taken: and let Dysmas and Gestas the two malefactors be crucified with Thee.
Dismas is considered a Saint -- the patron of prisoners -- and his memorial is on 25 March, the date believed to be the date of the Crucifixion. You'll note that the date is the same as the Feast of the Annunciation, when St. Gabriel visited Mary to tell her she was to have a son; it is ancient tradition that the Prophets died on the same day they were conceived. Legend has it that when the Holy Family went on their "flight to Egypt" to escape Herod's wrath, they were accosted by thieves, among whom were Dismas and Gestas. Dismas felt that there was something different about this Family, and ordered his comrades to leave them alone. His act of natural virtue was repaid by the supernatural gift of faith he received when being crucified next to Our Lord. This pious tale is recounted in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, an apocryphal book likely dated to the 4th c., and originally in Syriac. In it, the thieves' names are given as Titus and Dumachus:
And turning away from this place, they came to a desert; and hearing that it was infested by robbers, Joseph and the Lady Mary resolved to cross this region by night. But as they go along, behold, they see two robbers lying in the way, and along with them a great number of robbers, who were their associates, sleeping. Now those two robbers, into whose hands they had fallen, were Titus and Dumachus. Titus therefore said to Dumachus: I beseech thee to let these persons go freely, and so that our comrades may not see them. And as Dumachus refused, Titus said to him again: Take to thyself forty drachmas from me, and hold this as a pledge. At the same time he held out to him the belt which he had about his waist, to keep him from opening his mouth or speaking. And the Lady Mary, seeing that the robber had done them a kindness, said to him: The Lord God will sustain thee by His right hand, and will grant thee remission of thy sins. And the Lord Jesus answered, and said to His mother: Thirty years hence, O my mother, the Jews will crucify me at Jerusalem, and these two robbers will be raised upon the cross along with me, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left; and after that day Titus shall go before me into Paradise. And she said: God keep this from thee, my son. And they went thence towards a city of idols, which, as they came near it, was changed into sand-hills.
See also: the footnotes of the Mary Gardens page for information about and pictures of the flowers that the women used for Jesus's funeral, and the page on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross for information about the True Cross.
Because Christ spent 40 hours in His tomb (from 3 PM Good Friday until 7 AM Pascha morning -- a span covering 3 separate Jewish days as even a part of one day is counted as "a day"), from the very earliest Christian times, it's been customary for some to fast and keep vigil during this entire period, which is known as "40 Hours' Devotion" (Quarant'ore).
As to foods, Hot Cross Buns are traditionally eaten for breakfast on this day, and are about the only luxury afforded in this time of mourning. Legend says that a priest at St. Alban's Abbey in Hertfordshire gave these to the poor on Good Friday beginning in A.D. 1361, and the tradition was born. Below is a recipe for them:
Hot Cross Buns
1 cup milk
2 TBSP yeast
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup butter, melted, cooled
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
||5 cups flour
1 1/3 cups currants or raisins
1 egg white
1 1/3 cups confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. lemon extract
1- 2 TBSP milk
In a small saucepan, heat milk to very warm, but not hot (110°F if using a candy thermometer). Fit an electric mixer with a dough hook. Pour warm milk in the bowl of mixer and sprinkle yeast over. Mix to dissolve and let sit for 5 minutes.
With mixer running at low speed, add sugar, salt, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and eggs. Gradually add flour, dough will be wet and sticky, and continue kneading with dough hook until smooth, about 5 minutes. Detach bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 30-45 minutes.
Return bowl to mixer and knead until smooth and elastic, for about 3 more minutes. Add currants or raisins and knead until well mixed. At this point, dough will still be fairly wet and sticky. Shape dough in a ball, place in a buttered dish, cover with plastic wrap and let rise overnight in the refrigerator. Excess moisture will be absorbed by the morning.
Let dough sit at room temperature for about a half-hour. Line a large baking pan (or pans) with parchment paper (you could also lightly grease a baking pan, but parchment works better). Divide dough into 24 equal pieces (in half, half again, etc., etc.). Shape each portion into a ball and place on baking sheet, about 1/2 inch apart. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
In the meantime, pre-heat oven to 400° F.
When buns have risen, take a sharp or serrated knife and carefully slash buns with a cross shape all the way across the top (an equilateral Greek Cross). Brush them with egg white and place in oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° F, then bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Transfer to a wire rack. Whisk together glaze ingredients, and spoon over buns in the cross pattern made earlier. Serve warm with butter, if possible.
It is customary, because of the Cross on the buns, to kiss them before eating, and to share one of these Hot Cross Buns with someone, reciting these words:
Half for you and half for me,
Between us two shall goodwill be.
Hot Cross buns are said to never corrupt and Catholics used to keep a few all year to grate some of it into water for the sick to consume. There's also an old nursery rhyme about this bread that might amuse your children. It's the verse that was sung by the Hot Cross Bun vendor back when England was Merry Olde England. Click here for the melody:
How Cross Buns! Hot Cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny, Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters give them to your sons,
One a penny, two a penny Hot cross buns
Processions, and Passion Plays and other dramatizations of our Lord's sufferings are customary on this day in some places. The most famous of Passion Plays is the one that takes place at Oberammergau, Germany, in the Bavarian Alps once each decade. In 1632, the plague even penetrated the remote mountain valleys of those mountains, and although the villagers kept guard to prevent the plague reaching the village, a man from Oberammergau working as a farm labourer in a village a few miles away carried the disease home. Within a year, the Black Death had claimed over a fifth of the approximately 1,500 inhabitants of Oberammergau. Suffering badly and seeing no end to the plague in sight, the village elders gathered in their parish church on October 27, 1633 and vowed to perform Passion plays depicting the passion of Christ every ten years if God would only show mercy and release their village from the clutches of the plague.
After they kept their part of the vow in 1634 (at Pentecost) by performing the play for the first time, no villager died of the plague -- and every ten years since then, the people of Oberammergau stage the most celebrated Passion Play of all time. The city of Spearfish, South Dakota in the United States also puts on a large Passion Play -- the "Black Hills Passion Play" -- each year, and has so since 1938 after it was instituted by a German immigrant. Iztapalapa, a district of Mexico City, has a very large, very communal reenactment of Christ's Passion each year, too.
And I imagine that in many Catholic homes, watching Mel Gibson's cinematic "Passion Play" -- "The Passion of the Christ" -- will become a custom on this day. If you haven't seen it, you must!
As to symbols, there is a beautiful one recounted in this tale to tell your children -- the legend of the dogwood tree:
It is said at the time of the Crucifixion, the dogwood was comparable in size to the oak tree and other monarchs of the forest. Because of its firmness and strength it was selected as the timber for the Cross, but to be put to such a cruel use greatly distressed the tree. Sensing this, the crucified Jesus in His gentle pity for the sorrow and suffering of all said to it: "Because of your sorrow and pity for My sufferings, never again will the dogwood tree grow large enough to be used as a gibbet. Henceforth it will be slender, bent and twisted and its blossoms will be in the form of a cross -- two long and two short petals. In the center of the outer edge of each petal there will be nail prints -- brown with rust and stained with red -- and in the center of the flower will be a crown of thorns, and all who see this will remember."
See also the Christmastide Overview page for a legend about the robin on Good Friday.
A relatively recent devotion that begins this day is the praying of the Novena to the Divine Mercy, which will end on the eve of the Sunday after Easter ("Low Sunday," or "Divine Mercy Sunday"). This novena, and its associated chaplet, incorporates some of the words of the trisagion mentioned above.
A Poem on the Passion of the Lord
By Lactantius, 4th c.
Whoever you are who approach, and are entering the precincts of the middle of the temple, stop a little and look upon me, who, though innocent, suffered for your crime; lay me up in your mind, keep me in your breast. I am He who, pitying the bitter misfortunes of men, came hither as a messenger of offered peace, and as a full atonement for the fault of men. Here the brightest light from above is restored to the earth; here is the merciful image of safety; here I am a rest to you, the right way, the true redemption, the banner of God, and a memorable sign of fate. It was on account of you and your life that I entered the Virgin's womb, was made man, and suffered a dreadful death; nor did I find rest anywhere in the regions of the earth, but everywhere threats, everywhere labours.
First of all a wretched dwelling in the land of Judged was a shelter for me at my birth, and for my mother with me: here first, amidst the outstretched sluggish cattle, dry grass gave me a bed in a narrow stall. I passed my earliest years in the Pharian regions, being an exile in the reign of Herod; and after my return to Judaea I spent the rest of my years, always engaged in fastings, and the extremity of poverty itself, and the lowest circumstances; always by healthful admonitions applying the minds of men to the pursuit of genial uprightness, uniting with wholesome teaching many evident miracles: on which account impious Jerusalem, harassed by the raging cares of envy and cruel hatred, and blinded by madness, dared to seek for me, though innocent, by deadly punishment, a cruel death on the dreadful Cross.
And if you yourself wish to discriminate these things more fully, and if it delights you to go through all my groans, and to experience griefs with me, put together the designs and plots, and the impious price of my innocent Blood; and the pretended kisses of a disciple, and the insults and strivings of the cruel multitude; and, moreover, the blows, and tongues prepared for accusations. Picture to your mind both the witnesses, and the accursed judgment of the blinded Pilate, and the immense Cross pressing my shoulders and wearied back, and my painful steps to a dreadful death.
Now survey me from head to foot, deserted as I am, and lifted up afar from my beloved mother. Behold and see my locks clotted with blood, and my blood-stained neck under my very hair, and my head drained with cruel thorns, and pouring down like rain from all sides a stream of blood over my divine face. Survey my compressed and sightless eyes, and my afflicted cheeks; see my parched tongue poisoned with gall, and my countenance pale with death. Behold my hands pierced with nails, and my arms drawn out, and the great wound in my side; see the blood streaming from it, and my perforated feet, and blood-stained limbs. Bend your knee, and with lamentation adore the venerable wood of the Cross, and with lowly countenance stooping to the earth, which is wet with innocent blood, sprinkle it with rising tears, and at times bear me and my admonitions in your devoted heart.
Follow the footsteps of my life, and while you look upon my torments and cruel death, remembering my innumerable pangs of body and soul, learn to endure hardships, and to watch over your own safety. These memorials, if at any time you find pleasure in thinking over them, if in your mind there is any confidence to bear anything like my sufferings, if the piety due, and gratitude worthy of my labours shall arise, will be incitements to true virtue, and they will be shields against the snares of an enemy, aroused by which you will be safe, and as a conqueror bear off the palm in every contest.
If these memorials shall turn away your senses, which are devoted to a perishable world, from the fleeting shadow of earthly beauty, the result will be, that you will not venture, enticed by empty hope, to trust the frail enjoyments of fickle fortune, and to place your hope in the fleeting years of life.
But, truly, if you thus regard this perishable world, and through your love of a better country deprive yourself of earthly riches and the enjoyment of present things, the prayers of the pious will bring you up in sacred habits, and in the hope of a happy life, amidst severe punishments, will cherish you with heavenly dew, and feed you with the sweetness of the promised good. Until the great favour of God shall recall your happy" soul to the heavenly regions, your body being left after the fates of death. Then freed from all labour, then joyfully beholding the angelic choirs, and the blessed companies of saints in perpetual bliss, it shall reign with me in the happy abode of perpetual peace.
1 Catholic Encyclopedia: "The origin of the term Good is not clear. Some say it is from "God's Friday" (Gottes Freitag); others maintain that it is from the German Gute Freitag, and not specially English."
2 Many Protestants claim that a lovely spot known as "The Garden Tomb" was the site of Our Lord's Entombment and Resurrection, but, pretty as the place is, the tombs there date to the 7th century before Christ, and there's absolutely no tradition to buttress the idea. Jesus was laid in a tomb that had never been used -- John 19:41: "Now there was in the place where he was crucified, a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein no man yet had been laid" -- from "virginal womb" to "virginal tomb." The "Garden Tomb" doesn't fit this description, but the tombs in and around the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, on the other hand, are first century tombs, and Jesus' Tomb was pointed out to St. Helena -- born ca. A.D. 250 -- by the Christians who lived in the area.
3 It is because of this tradition that one often sees a skull -- the skull of Adam -- at the foot of the Cross in depictions of the Crucifixion and on Crucifixes, etc.