Holy Week: Good Friday, History, Meaning, Traditions
The most solemn part of Holy Week is Good Friday. This is the day that commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. The history of Good Friday many people know, but how traditions developed, and the meaning behind them can be rather interesting.
All four Gospel accounts tell of how Jesus died. According to the accounts, the Pharisees, who were the Jewish religious leaders of the time, wanted Jesus to die, because He did not follow their directives, and because the people were choosing to follow Him. While many blame the religious leaders for the death, the reality is that this was a necessary means to save mankind from sin. According to the Bible, no one man or one group was responsible for His death; since each man and woman had sinned, and since the Bible dictated that a blood sacrifice was required as restitution for sin, Jesus’ death was the only method to pay that debt. The religious leaders may have pushed for His death, but this was something Jesus knew He was destined for, long before the Religious Leaders demanded He die.
In the last Holy Week issue, it was pointed out that Jesus had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Passover was the commemoration of when God “passed over” the Israelite people, when He brought the plague of the death of the first-born upon Egypt. God had told Moses to tell the people to put the blood of the lamb on their doorframes and door posts, that He (God) would see it, and passed over their homes.
The Lamb of God
Passover was a feast that was celebrated by the Israelites, and later only by the Jewish people (the tribe of Judah), to commemorate this event. It was required that each person bring a lamb to the Temple to be slaughtered by the high priest. The lamb was sacrificed to pay the debt that a person owed to God for their sin.
The Gospels, very early on, clearly identify Jesus as the One who came to pay the debt for all of mankind. That He would pay for the sins of man, just as the lamb paid the debt for the sins of the person who brought it to the Temple. When John the Baptist first saw Jesus, he did not point out that Jesus was the King who came to free the Jewish people. He did not tell people to go and worship the Son of God. Instead, he told the people to look and see “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
The Bible makes it clear that John wanted all to know that Jesus came to be the sacrifice from the very start. This is why the religious leaders cannot be blamed for Jesus’ death. He specifically came to die in place of all of mankind, and John points this out.
The Death of Jesus Fulfills Passover
There were many guidelines that were related to Passover which Jesus had to fulfill, if He was going to be the true “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” The Passover occurred on the fifteenth day of Abib, which was the first month of the Hebrew calendar. According to Alfred Edersheim, well-known Biblical scholar, the slaughtering of the lambs always began around 3 pm on Passover, or three hours before the time when the sun would go down. It was to have been concluded by about 6 pm (the twelfth hour). There was one exception to this rule however. If Passover fell on a Friday, this meant that the Israelite and Jewish peoples were supposed to be inside by sundown to begin the Sabbath day celebration. Therefore, the slaughtering of the lambs began at noon, and was to be concluded by 3 pm, so that Sabbath day preparations could begin.
The Bible tells of how Jesus was placed upon the cross at noon, and that he eventually “gave up his soul” three hours late. This added to the fulfillment of Jesus following the guidelines, which were to be adhered to, related to Passover.
There are many other aspects related to His death that followed the Passover rules set forth by God, but they are not specifically relevant to this article. What is relevant is that Jesus was recognized by His followers as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
Three Days and Three Nights
One of the big hang-ups for many theologians has been related to Jesus’ statement that He would be like Jonah, three days and three nights in the belly of the whale. It is this statement that has created one of two arguments. One, for Jesus to be in the “belly of the whale” for three days and three nights, then he must have been crucified on Thursday, with the Last Supper being on Wednesday. This is contradicted by the fact that Passover occurred on a Friday in 33 AD, so this option cannot be true.
The second option is that the Bible is just a contradiction, because Jesus was not dead and buried for three days and three nights, but was instead crucified on Friday and raised on Sunday, according to the Gospel accounts. This is only two days and two nights, which contradicts Jesus’ words, so the Bible must be false.
Neither idea is right, because what is missed here is that modern society does not understand the idiom.
In the Jewish culture of that time, to say that a person was “in the belly of a whale” is akin to someone in today’s society saying that they are “in a pickle.” It meant that they would be in a very difficult situation. Understanding it from the use of the idiom, what must be looked at is when the “belly of the whale” situation began.
Jesus appeared with His Disciples in the upper room to celebrate Passover on Thursday night. He told His Disciples that He was to be betrayed by one of them, and that He would suffer a horrible death the next day. That sounds like Thursday night was a pretty rough night indeed, and so the “belly of the whale” situation began then, even if He was not actually dead at that point; He was still in a very difficult situation, so He was in the “belly of a whale.”
Understanding it from this perspective supports the fact that He was in the “belly of the whale” three days and three nights, and there is no contradiction whatsoever.
History of Good Friday
Until the fourth century, most Christians commemorated the Last Supper, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the resurrection all in a single-day celebration. This was conducted on the Saturday evening before Easter. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was a greater push by the Emperor Constantine to create a more extravagant set of traditions related around the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. This led to the splitting of the celebration into three different days, starting with Holy Thursday, and ending with Easter.
The original title to the day went by many names. This included Black Friday, Holy Friday, Silent Friday, and Great Friday. It was not actually until English became a more well-established language that the day was changed to Good Friday.
With an understanding of the history and meanings of Good Friday during Holy Week, the traditions will be addressed. Once the day was established as a significant holy day within the faith, it did not take long for a set of rituals to be established around the day. When it was first created, the tradition started that Christians would gather together at local churches or places of worship, and read the Psalms and the Gospel accounts. They would also sing hymns that were related to Jesus death.
As the Roman church began to take a more prominent role in affairs of the church worldwide, the Roman bishop began to order a new set of religious observances to commemorate the day. One of the first decisions made was to begin a set of prayers at noon, three and six p.m. on Good Friday. These hours became known as the Royal Hours. During these times, not only were the Gospels read, but Old Testament passages related to Jesus were included, as were the Epistle letters.
By the ninth century a new tradition was taking hold. The bishops of large communities would place a cross up in the church at noon that depicted Jesus on the cross. The community would then pray for three hours privately, until 3 pm was reached. Then the cross would be taken down, and the members would begin a time of penance and prayer. Some churches even went as far as to wrap the depicted Jesus in a cloth and place him in a make-shift grave.
Very early on, once the day was recognized as a separate holy day, most church members fasted for the entire day. This did not became a mandate of the church until centuries later, but many believers chose to fast for the entire day, as a form of penance and remorse.
Once the Protestant Reformation occurred, a whole new set of traditions began to appear. One of the earliest set of traditions came from the Anglican Church. Because the day commemorated the death of Jesus, Anglicans were barred from taking the communion Eucharist on Good Friday. This became known as Ante-communion. A three hour prayer service accompanied the day as well.
In the sixteenth century, the Lutheran faith called for a Sabbath type rest on Good Friday. This meant that all Lutherans were required to refrain from work. Unlike the Anglicans, the Lutheran faith called expressly for the taking of communion on Good Friday, as a means of establishing a “connection” with Jesus.
Most other denominations offer services or masses on the day, and celebrate the event with solemn prayer and reflection.
Holy Week reaches Good Friday, which is the day that the Christian faith recognizes the history and meaning of Jesus death, through a series of traditions and rituals that have been created. Since its creation in the fourth century, this has becomes one of the most important days in all of Christendom. In many countries of the world it is even a national holiday, which signifies the importance of it to many.
Previous Holy Week Articles:
Holy Week – Holy Thursday
Holy Week- Palm Sunday
Catholics: History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent