Observed in Countries with Christian populations
Observed on Friday before Easter
Observed by Christians

Good Friday observes the day on which Jesus, believed by Christians to have been the Messiah, was crucified by the Romans. Christians also believe he was the Son of God, embodying the second person of the Holy Trinity (which is made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The day is a part of Holy Week, or Passion Week, the last week of Jesus’ mortal life. His death is believed to have redeemed the world, and the name Good Friday expresses the Christian belief that even death cannot overshadow God’s love for humanity.
The original name of this holiday may well have been God’s Friday because, in Early Modern English, good meant “holy.” Also, the two words were often interchangeable as in, “God be with you,” now elided and spelled “good-bye.”
Origins and History
According to the calculations of the times, Friday began at sundown on Thursday. The changed calculations in 1582, when the Julian calendar was again revised, provided the dividing factor, and Good Friday thus begins at the time of Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, sometime between 1:00 and 1:30 A.M., which was followed by his imprisonment, Pontius Pilate’s words, “I find no guilt in this man,” his attempts to release Jesus, Jesus’ imprisonment and torture, and finally Jesus’ being crowned with thorns and crucified. His Crucifixion occurred at the same time that the paschal lambs (for the Jewish feast of Passover) were being slaughtered (between 12:00 noon and 3:00 P.M.). He died after three hours on the Cross. Out of this synchrony came the symbolism of Jesus as the sacrificed lamb, the true paschal lamb. Scripture says that Joseph of Arimathea begged Pilate for Jesus’ body, and wrapped it in linen in accordance with Jewish custom. The body was then placed in the sepulcher (tomb) that Joseph had had prepared for himself.
It is worth mentioning that crucifixions were a common means of execution in those times and were undoubtedly chosen for their shock value. The purpose lay not so much in punishing the offender as in warning others.
Four centuries later a period of relative safety for Christians began when the Roman Emperor Constantine protected them from persecution. As a result, the fourth century saw the first celebrations of Holy Week, including Good Friday. (Previously, Easter and Good Friday had been the important Christian holidays.) The fourth century was also a good time to search for the holy sites of Christianity that had been partially desecrated, lost, or forgotten. In 327 Macarius (d. 333), Bishop of Jerusalem, ordered excavations, and his workers found not only the holy sepulcher and the site of Calvary, but also the original wooden Cross. A special chapel was built for it between the Basilica of Anastasis (Resurrection) and the Church of Martyrion in Jerusalem.
The “Pilgrimage of Aetheria” is a nun’s account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the fourth century. It includes a description of how the different days of Holy Week were observed. One of the accounts Aetheria (or Egeria, or Sylvia, as she is variously called) gives is of the Good Friday ceremony in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century.
Although the first Mass is believed to have been the celebration of the Eucharist (along with the set order of worship) around 150, there was no formal Mass in those early years. All services followed the Jewish synagogue pattern of lessons, chants, and prayers. According to Aetheria, monks and believers would assemble at 8:00 A.M. in the Chapel of the Cross on Good Friday. The Bishop of Golgotha sat behind a table, and the silver-gilt casket holding the sacred wood of the original Cross was placed thereon. The wood was placed on the table, and the bishop held it firmly at both ends. Worshippers came up to the table, bowed, and kissed the cross.
People were allowed to kiss it and touch it with their foreheads and eyes, but not with their hands.
However, the wish to own a piece of the sacred wood still proved overwhelming for some: At least one worshipper pretended to kiss the Cross and bit off a “relic” for himself.
The Roman Ordines of 800 contain the order of the prayers for Good Friday. The traditional Roman Catholic service is a variation of the original service held in Jerusalem. A veiled crucifix is gradually unveiled while the hymn “Ecce Lignum Crucis” is sung three times. The worshippers respond with “Venite Adoremus,” and everyone in the church, with the exception of the celebrant, singing the hymn, kneels in adoration. (A celebrant is a church official leading a religious ceremony.) The cross is then carried to the altar and placed on a cushion near it. First the celebrant and then the deacon and others remove their shoes, bow to the cross, and kiss it. After this, the clergy hold up other crosses for the congregation to kiss. The cross is placed on the altar, surrounded by lit candles. The choir sings the “Improperia” during this ceremony. This is believed to be based on Jesus’ words to the Jews but is not found in the early Roman Ordines. (The “Improperia” appears in a 14th-century Roman Ordo and is believed to have originated in the Gallican church, the church of France.) A procession moves toward the spot where the consecrated host (also referred to as the “bread of the sacrament” or “communion”), prepared on Thursday, is kept in an urn. The urn represents Jesus’ tomb. The Mass of the Presanctified, which is not actually a Mass, is sung by the celebrant and others. The host is placed on the altar and then consumed by the celebrant. There is no Communion prepared on Good Friday (and many churches do not offer Communion this day) because the day is not a celebration. Together with Holy Saturday, it is considered a nonliturgical day, since these were the days when Jesus was separated from his followers.
This veneration of the Cross has been the subject of much criticism by believers and nonbelievers alike, many of whom were critical of the Cross (not the dying Jesus) becoming the object of devotion.
Even so, the Cross became quite visible in the early days of Christianity and was used by rulers and their subjects alike. It was supported by many who were opposed to icons of any kind. Even iconoclastic emperors like Leo the Isaurian (r. 716–41), Constantine Copronymus (r. 741–75), and Michael II (r.
820–29) had the Cross stamped on their coins, and people undertook pilgrimages simply to adore it.
The Saurolaters and the Chazingarii were sects distinguished by their adoration of the Cross. Eventually, the Second Council of Nicaea (787) laid down certain norms and distinguished between proskynesis (veneration) and aspasmos (salutation) due a cross or other symbols of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or the saints, and the alethine latreia (true adoration) that was owed to divinity alone.
Good Friday is a day of mourning in memory of Jesus’ Crucifixion, even though it contains within it the miracle of the Resurrection. Often, Good Friday services are three hours long in memory of Jesus’ three hours on the Cross, and may be held between 12:00 noon and 3:00 P.M. These afternoon services recall Jesus’ hours on the Cross but have been shifted to the evening at some churches so that more people can attend.
Two observances are an integral part of Good Friday services in most Catholic and Protestant Churches. Tenebrae, which means “darkness,” is called the Service of Darkness or Service of Shadows and can be traced back to the earliest traditions of church services held on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week, comprising prayers and readings pertaining to the Passion (suffering) of Jesus. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are always chanted during this service, and the Passion is sung by three deacons as specified in the early manuscripts of the Gospels. Readings of the Passion are traditionally taken from the Gospel of St. John. The final prayer is the “Bidding Prayer,” which dates back to the fifth century in its present form, although the roots are to be found in Jewish worship.
As the service progresses, lights are gradually dimmed, and the 15 candles in the candle stand (called the Tenebrae Hearse) are extinguished one at a time until only one remains. The darkened atmosphere symbolizes a world without God, and the one lit candle represents Jesus. It is taken from the holder and placed behind the altar, followed almost immediately by a loud noise like the closing of a tomb. This concludes the service and worshippers leave in silence. The Jesus candle is replaced in the holder.
The Service of the Last Seven Words of Christ actually refers to the last seven sentences Jesus is believed to have spoken while dying on the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke)
“Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” (Luke)
“Woman, behold your son.” (John)
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew)
“I thirst.” (John)
“It is finished.” (John)
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke)
Since the beginning of Good Friday observances, these have been the focus of church services.
Worshippers are expected to meditate on related events from Jesus’ life and also about related problems faced by people the world over, such as starvation, domestic and other kinds of violence, homelessness, child abuse, and poverty. Prayers are offered for peace and prosperity, happiness, and health.
The Stations of the Cross refers to a traditional Catholic ritual that is usually observed as part of the morning Mass. It is performed monthly but assumes special significance during the Good Friday observance.
Typically, the “stations” refer to 14 banners or paintings mounted on wooden crosses illustrating scenes from Jesus’ trial and Crucifixion. These are erected in a path in or around the church so that believers can move from one to the other, to reflect, pray, or sing hymns. Some Christian denominations have adapted tradition to create an equally meaningful custom: Worshippers visit places of suffering and people with problems, pondering all the while on Jesus’ last utterances and praying.
In Eastern Orthodox Churches, Holy Week and its special days are celebrated 13 days after the Easter observances in Western churches (including the Roman Catholic and affiliated Eastern churches, as well as Protestant sects) have been held. In Orthodox Churches, Good Friday is referred to as Great Friday, emphasizing Jesus’ victory over death (as symbolized by Easter) rather than his death on this Friday. There are three services: The first one is held before noon and is called Royal Hours; the afternoon service is known as the Vespers of Good Friday; and the evening service is called the Matins of Holy Saturday. In the morning a two-dimensional figure of Jesus is placed on a cross and moved to the center of the church in front of the nave (where the congregation sits). The figure is removed from the cross during the afternoon prayer service and taken to the altar where the epitaphion (a cloth icon of Jesus) is placed on a low table already laid out with flowers. During the evening service, the epitaphion is carried in a procession by young men and returned to the low table.
The Apokathelosis (“taking down from the Cross”) of the Greek Orthodox Church is a grand procession that simulates a funeral during which the image of Jesus is laid on a bier and carried through the town. Worshippers line the streets to adore the image, and they may pray and kiss the image if they wish. In the Anglican Church, some Roman Catholic traditions are followed but with modifications.
After the congregation has kissed the Cross, it is placed in a recess symbolizing the sepulcher.
Monks mount a vigil, chanting Psalms day and night, until Easter morning when the Mass of the Presanctified is held.