Good Friday: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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Good Friday is the most somber day of the Christian year. On this day, we remember the death of Jesus on the cross.

Good Friday?

Why do we call the day “Good Friday?” The etymology of Good Friday goes back to Middle English, where “good” had the sense of “holy.” At the time, other days in Holy Week were also called good; for example, “Holy Wednesday” was called “Good Wednesday.” However, as the older meaning of “good” became archaic in our language, we continued to use “Good Friday” for this day. Why?

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Because what was evil for Jesus is good for us. Jesus’s death has brought us life. His atonement has forgiven our sins. Jesus is the suffering servant, prophesied long ago by Isaiah, come to save his people:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
  he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
  and with his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

In other words, God is in the business of bringing good out of evil. As Joseph said to his brothers, the same brothers who had sold him into slavery, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Thus, even though this is indeed a solemn day on which we remember the unjust crucifixion of our Lord, the day is also properly called “Good Friday,” for:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).

The Long Friday

An even older term for Good Friday is “Long Friday,” which was used by the Anglo-Saxons and is still found in Scandinavia. It is a “Long Friday” because, on this day, we remember the six hours that Jesus hung on the cross, from 9 AM to 3 PM. Mark records the details of the day with some precision:

9AM – It was the third hour when they crucified him (Mark 15:25)
12PM – And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (Mark 15:33)
3PM – And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”…And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last (Mark 15:34, 37).

Many Christians observe these six hours with special devotions, such as heightening the Lenten fast, dedicated times of prayer, observing periods of silence, reading from scripture and devotional literature, and participating in special church services.

A Bare Church

When you come to church on Good Friday, it will feel strangely bare. The linens on the altar and pulpit have been removed, as have the candles and other implements. Some churches even empty the water from the baptismal font. The clergy do not wear vestments on this day, and many churches reduce instrumentation or even sing a capella. Some churches cover their crosses in black mesh or cloth. Congregants often wear black or other muted colors.

These practices fit the somber tone of the day and also reflect details in the crucifixion account, such as the stripping of Jesus’ clothes and his crucifixion outside the city (see Mark 15:21-24).

We also do not celebrate communion on Good Friday, consistent with Jesus’ teaching at the end of the last supper: “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Some churches do distribute pre-consecrated elements, without using the eucharistic prayers.

The Passion Narrative

The core of the Good Friday liturgy is the reading of the Passion Narrative, which covers the events from Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane to his trial before Pontius Pilate to his crucifixion and death. Although the Passion Narrative is frequently read from the Gospel of John, it can also be read from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, especially if it was not read on Palm Sunday. Other churches utilize the traditional “Stations of the Cross” devotion, which breaks the passion narrative into fourteen moments, each read individually and reflected upon with related prayers, hymns, and images.

Many churches assign parts for the reading of the Passion, with a narrator, individual characters, and most importantly, the crowd. Generally, the congregation as a whole plays the part of the crowd. Thus, when Pilate presents Jesus to the people, we all cry out together:

Away with him, away with him, crucify him! (John 19:15)

How moving it is to enter the Passion story on this somber day, to find ourselves amidst the crowd, and realize that we, too, through our sin, require the crucifixion of Christ! This theme and many other details in the Passion narrative provide a profound basis for the Good Friday sermon. Instead of a single sermon, some churches have a series of reflections on Jesus’ seven last words from the cross.

Devotion Before the Cross

After the Solemn Collects, the Good Friday service culminates in a Devotion Before the Cross, an ancient practice drawn from the first centuries of the church in Jerusalem. This devotion features a bare wooden cross brought into the congregation together. A set of ancient prayers and hymns to Christ our Savior accompany this.

In many churches, the people will come forward to touch the cross, and some even have the practice of hammering nails into the cross. In doing so, we do not worship the cross (which would be idolatry) but instead use the cross to focus our attention on the sacrifice of Jesus for our salvation. Note that we use a bare cross, rather than a crucifix, to remind us that Christ is in heaven, and our adoration ascends to him:

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
Because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.


Image: detail of Christ Crucified by Diego Velázquez (1632).

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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