Good Friday: The Significance of the Day & How Christians Observe It

Good Friday is one of the most significant days on the Christian calendar. But what makes this day good?

Mar 28, 2024By Eben De Jager, PhD New Testament, MTh Christian Spirituality

good friday significance observance


Good Friday is a celebration that all Christian denominations have. It is a day of reflection on the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. As such, it recalls the most important event that paved the way for the salvation of believers.


There are different traditions for celebrating Good Friday, and all of them aim to engage with the reality and significance of the death of Jesus Christ. Some traditions stem from Old Testament types. Others have no root in Biblical tradition whatsoever but still hold significance to observers.


Good Friday in the Roman Catholic Tradition

The Entombment of Christ, by Caravaggio, circa 1602-1603, Source: Vatican Museums


In the Roman Catholic tradition, Good Friday is the first day of the Triduum, a three-day preparation for a great feast. It begins on Holy Thursday. Sometimes, a bishop of each diocese starts with a chrism mass, in which the oil used in baptisms, anointings, and confirmations will be blessed.


There is also a focus on the priesthood, with priests publicly renewing their promises to fulfill their ministerial duties. On the Thursday evening, the priest may wash the feet of some of the church members. In Catholicism, the belief is that Christ instituted the priesthood just before the Last Supper when he washed the feet of the disciples. Traditionally, the priest washes the feet of twelve men.

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On Good Friday, there is no mass. It is because mass is a representation of the death of Christ, but on Good Friday, the day the actual event took place, the representation takes a back seat while members reflect on the reality of the death of Jesus that occurred on that day. Around three in the afternoon, there is the liturgy of the Word, the veneration of the cross, and then communion. This time in the afternoon is when Jesus died on the cross. The communion on Good Friday is not a mass because there is no consecration. Members spend this day praying and fasting by abstaining from eating meat.


Good Friday evening is known for the Tenebrae service. During this service, the members listen to accounts of the Passion from the Gospels or reflect on the seven sayings of Christ on the cross.


Good Friday in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition

An epitaphios with gold embroidery, by Oleg Blazhko, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Good Friday, also known as Great or Holy Friday, sees members engage in activities that the Roman Catholic tradition holds dear. Members spend time in prayer and abstain from certain foods. Notably, they avoid eating animal products such as milk and cheese, not just meat.


They attend the Royal Hours, a series of four services that include readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the Gospels. During the Vespers service, the priest brings out the epitaphios, a cloth embroidered with an image of the body of Christ, which symbolizes his burial. He then places it on a decorated bier or tomb in the center of the church, where the faithful venerate it.


The most prominent of the services on Great Friday is the Matins of Holy Saturday. It is a Lamentation service where members walk around the church in a procession carrying candles and icon replicas of the epitaphios. They engage in singing sorrowful hymns of lament but also of hope for the resurrection of Christ. Some Orthodox Churches hold an all-night vigil after the Matins of Holy Saturday.


Anglican/Episcopal Church

The Crucifixion, by Theophanes the Cretan, mid-16th century, Stavronikita Monastery, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Anglican and Episcopal Churches tend to have services like those of the Roman Catholic tradition. Some services include a liturgy of the Word, veneration of the cross, and the singing of hymns and communion. This tradition sometimes includes dramatic presentations and choral performances depicting the Passion of Christ.


Evangelical and Non-Denominational Churches

The Crucifixion, by Fra Angelico, 1420-23, Source: The MET, New York


The Evangelical and non-denominational traditions have much more diverse approaches to celebrating Good Friday. Special services on a Friday evening are commonplace, and some denominations arrange camp meetings where members from the church come together for the whole weekend to celebrate Easter. These gatherings often start on Thursday evening and correlate with the Last Supper.


Communion is a common practice at these gatherings. Some churches even feature passion plays to portray the events of the crucifixion of Christ to the attendees. The sermons focus on the Passion of Christ and the significance of His death on behalf of believers. This time of contemplation is often a high point on the annual calendar for Christians.


The Significance of Good Friday

The Good Friday crucifix and frescoes on walls of the main temple (katholikon) in St. Trinity Monastery (Moni Agias Triados), Meteora, Greece, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The significance of Good Friday lies in what it tells us about God. The crux of the matter is reflected in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Good Friday marks the culmination of the sacrifice Christ made for man.


The sacrifice Christ made on Good Friday did several things. First, it demonstrated His commitment to and love for man. Jesus exemplified what he had said during his ministry: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).


Secondly, it made atonement for the sins of man. Jesus reconciled God with those willing to repent and ask for forgiveness. It is one of the profound mysteries of Christianity that God became man to save humanity. Good Friday is significant because it commemorates the Day of Reconciliation with their Creator.


Thirdly, it established a way for the redemption and salvation of believers. No one other than Jesus could redeem and save man.


Fourth, it provided man with a path to victory over death. Because of sin, man was doomed to die eternal death; the Bible declares that the wage of sin is death. In Jesus paying the price even though he had no sin, believers have a path to victory over death.


Fifth, Good Friday is a call to discipleship by sharing the good news about what God did for humanity.


Roman Catholic Parish church of St. Martin in Tannheim, on Good Friday the crucifix is placed in front of the altar, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Lastly, Good Friday commemorates the fulfillment of prophecy. The Passover narrative of Exodus 12 prefigured the sacrifice Jesus would make on behalf of believers. The type established by the spotless lamb that the Israelites had to offer met its antitype in Jesus as the lamb that took away the sins of man.


What Is So Good About Good Friday?

Descent from the Cross, South Netherlandish, ca. 1475–1500, Source: MET, New York


In Old English, good meant holy. Good Friday, therefore, originally meant Holy Friday. The Spanish and French names for this day still carry that meaning, “Viernes Santo” and “Vendredi Saint” respectively. The intent of calling the day good was to indicate the sanctity of what God had done for humanity on that day. In terms of salvation, it is the most significant day for Christians.


It may seem contradictory to consider the day that the Savior died as good or holy, but we must view it in the light of the resurrection on the third day. Yes, Christ died, but he was also raised again and overcame death. The Crucifixion was not the end of the story, but it was necessary for the salvation of believers.


Though the “good” in Good Friday means holy, there is much good in the day. The day allows believers to reflect on the goodness of grace, the goodness of the plan of God, the goodness of victory over death, and the goodness of salvation.


Good Friday: Conclusion

Crucifixion, by Gabriel Wüger, 1868, Beuron Archabbey, Source: Wikimedia Commons


How different denominations celebrate Good Friday varies significantly. Churches that celebrate Good Friday tend to do so with special services to commemorate the death of Christ on the cross. The readings and hymns used during these services narrate the Passion of Christ. In some traditions, there is a veneration of the cross or an epitaphios. Other Churches present passion plays or celebrate with choral performances. All these ways of celebrating Good Friday have one thing in common: a focus on the death of Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice for man.


Christians consider Good Friday holy because of what Jesus did on that day. The day is significant because it tells us about the commitment of God, his love for humanity, the atonement between God and man, and humanity’s way to redemption and salvation. It also shows that there is victory over death and hope of eternal life.


In short, Good Friday is holy because it commemorates the act of God who made the salvation of man possible through the selfless act of willing self-sacrifice. It celebrates the restoration of the relationship between the Creator and his creation.

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By Eben De JagerPhD New Testament, MTh Christian SpiritualityEben is a theologian, presenter, author, and public speaker with more than a decade of experience in Christian apologetics. His fields of interest are the gift of tongues and eschatology, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. He holds a PhD from North-West University, a MTh (Christian Spirituality) from the University of South Africa, a BA(Hons) in Theology from the University of Johannesburg, and a BA in Theology from the Rand Afrikaans University.