Good Friday Definition and Summary
Good Friday is the Friday of Holy Week, and commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Good Friday is a fast day in the Catholic Church, and falls within the Paschal Triduum. In 2010, Good Friday falls on April 2 (dates in other years).
Basic Facts About Good Friday
Liturgical Color(s): Red (formerly black)
Type of Holiday: Fast Day
Time of Year: Friday of Holy Week within the Paschal Triduum, and within the traditional 40 day Lenten Fast
Duration: One Day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Jesus’ Passion, Crucifixion, and Death
Alternate Names: Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion, Great Friday
Scriptural References: Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 23; John 17-19
Good Friday is the Friday within Holy Week, and is traditionally a time of fasting and penance, commemorating the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion and death. For Christians, Good Friday commemorates not just a historical event, but the sacrificial death of Christ, which with the resurrection, comprises the heart of the Christian faith. The Catholic Catechism states this succinctly:
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 St. Paul: "[Believers] are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood… (Romans 3:24-25, NAB). 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 services begin in the afternoon at 3:00 (the time Jesus likely died). Various traditions and customs are associated with the Western celebration of Good Friday. The singing (or preaching) of the Passion of St. 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 in the Western Church. 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, therefore the reserved host from the Holy (Maundy) 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 fourteen events surrounding the death of Jesus are commemorated. Most Catholic Churches have fourteen images of Jesus’ final days displayed throughout the parish, for use in public Stations of the Cross services. Another service started by the Jesuit Alphonso Messia in 1732, now less common, the Tre Ore or "Three Hours," is often held from noon until 3:00 PM, and consists of seven sermons on the seven last words of Christ. This service has been popular in many Protestant churches. Good Friday, along with Ash Wednesday, is an official fast day of the Catholic Church.
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). For more information see The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and The Catholic Source Book.
The celebration of Good Friday is ancient, and some of the practices associated with Good Friday are attested to by Egeria in the 4th 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 7th or 8th 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
Prayers for Lent
Traditions, Symbols, & Typology
Veneration of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross
Preaching/Singing of the Passion
Cross and Crucifix
Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing the Crucifixion
Joseph’s Imprisonment With Two Thieves
Martyrdom of Isaiah and Jeremiah
Isaac on Mt. Moriah
Good Friday Games and Educational Materials
Lent Crossword Puzzle (html)
Lent Crossword Puzzle (pdf)
Interactive Lent Crossword Puzzle
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 a 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 word meaning "three days." It begins the evening of Maundy Thursday and ends at Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday. Thus the Triduum consists of three full days which begin and end in the evening. The Triduum 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 forty day Lenten fast. The Triduum celebrates the heart of our faith and salvation: the death and resurrection of Christ, and is thus the high point of the liturgical year. For more information, visit our page, All About the Paschal Triduum.
3. Why Does the Church Celebrate the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus on a Friday?
It is long-held Tradition, based on the Biblical texts, that Jesus died on a Friday and rose from the dead on a Sunday, which would place the Last Supper on a Thursday night. Scripture tells us that Jesus rose from the dead "early on the first day of the week" (Mark 16:2, RSV). It was on the same day (the first day of the week) that Jesus met his apostles on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:1). John also confirms that Jesus rose on a Sunday (John 20:1). The early Church Fathers universally held that Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, and worshiped on Sunday, "The Lord’s Day." The Fathers also testify to the Institution of the Eucharist on a Thursday and a Friday crucifixion of Jesus. Even though Jesus tells us that he was to be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, in ancient Jewish reckoning, this included partial days. Thus, Jesus was saying that his time in the earth would span three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). Saint Justin Martyr (writing in 150 AD) testifies to both Sunday worship and a Friday crucifixion of Jesus:
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of ****** (Saturday); and on the day after that of ******, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples… (First Apology 67)
The Didache (70-90 AD) also mentions Sunday worship, and fasting on Fridays (likely connected to Jesus’ crucifixion that day):
Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites… but fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday)…But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure (8, 14).
The Apostolic Constitutions (late 4th century) verifies the same chronology. Note that, based on Scripture, this document provides the rationale for the dates of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
And on the fifth day of the week (Thursday), when we had eaten the Passover with Him, and when Judas had dipped his hand into the dish, and received the sop, and was gone out by night, the Lord said to us: "The hour is come that ye shall be dispersed, and shall leave me alone" (V:3:XIV).
…it being the day of the preparation (Friday), they delivered Him to Pilate the Roman governor, accusing Him of many and great things, none of which they could prove…[Jesus] commanded us to fast on the fourth and sixth (Friday) days of the week; the former on account of His being betrayed, and the latter on account of His passion (V:3:XIV, XV).
But when the first day of the week (Sunday) dawned He arose from the dead, and fulfilled those things which before His passion He foretold to us, saying: "The Son of man must continue in the heart of the earth three days and three nights" (V:3:XIV).
Virtually every Church Father who addresses the issue agrees with the traditional dating of a Thursday Last Supper, Friday Crucifixion, and Sunday resurrection. This includes those Church Fathers and writings mentioned above, but also Ignatius (105 AD), Pseudo-Barnabas (120 AD), Clement of Alexandria (195 AD), and many others. This chronology is firmly based on Scripture, and universally verified by Tradition.