By Father Gregory Elder
Parochial Vicar, St. Martha, Murrieta
As fortune or fate would have it, Friday April 6, 2012 marks the holy days of two great religions, it being the Christian fast day of Good Friday, and in the evening at Sunset, it will be the Jewish festival of Passover. Clearly, there is a direct historical and theological tie between the two, although they have very different significances.
Good Friday is the date on which Christians celebrate the execution of Jesus Christ at the hands of the Romans. The name “Good Friday” sounds odd to the ear, given that it is called “good” and commemorates, argue some, judicial murder. Scholars do not agree on the origin of the name. It may simply be a version of “God’s Friday.” Alternatively, it may have a theological meaning, in the medieval sense of the word “good,” meaning “paid off.” A good debt was one which was paid off by the debtor, while a bad debt was one which was never paid. In the religious arena, if mankind’s debt to sin was paid by Christ’s atoning death on this day, then the debt is a “good” one in the sense that it is now paid.
Good Friday is celebrated as the Friday before Easter, and as such is part of the Triduum, or the three holy days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter, which marks the larger experience of the death and resurrection of Christ. Since Easter follows a lunar calendar and is now the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Equinox, the date varies on the Gregorian calendar. For centuries, historians have tried to calculate the actual date on which Jesus was killed by going back to the Jewish calendar. Jesus was killed either on the Passover, or the day before the Passover, depending on how one reads the Gospels. Some scholars have calculated, therefore, that it must have been April 3 in the year 33 AD. This is, at best, conjecture. The only certain dates we can place for the event is that if it was the rule of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, his administration was from 26-36 AD before he was relieved of command by Tiberius Caesar for charges of treason and cruelty.
The first Christians certainly commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus around the time of the Jewish Passover, and given that many of the first Christians were Jews this must have seemed appropriate to them. But as gentile became increasingly dominant in the Church, it left its Jewish heritage, to some degree, in the past, which included its liturgical calendar. It was around 200 AD that the Bishop Hippolytus in Rome produced a complex method of calculating the date of Easter, which is officially still used today.
A description of early Christian worship on Good Friday is recorded for us by a woman Egeria, who lived in the twilight of the Roman Empire. Egeria made a pilgrimage to the holy land sometime around 381-384, and recorded her adventures in a document called Itinerarium Egeriae. Her manuscript was probably written in Italy, doubtless when she got home from her pilgrimage. In the text she makes a point of describing the worship services in Jerusalem in Holy Week. Egeria tells us about not only Good Friday, but also Palm Sunday and Easter, and she also tells us the date of Christmas was kept on December 25. Such information tells us that these holy days were not only practiced in Jerusalem, but Egeria also assumes that her readers knew what she was writing about, strongly suggesting that the holy dates were almost universal by the fourth century AD.
Today, Good Friday is observed by Christians in a variety of ways. Preaching services, sometimes on the last seven words of Christ are common in the Protestant community. In the Catholic tradition there is a ritual veneration of the cross, usually with solemn prayers for the nations of the world and kissing a wooden crucifix in honor of Christ’s suffering. It is the only day of the year in the Catholic world when no Mass is said, although holy communion is given from the reserved sacrament. In the Eastern Orthodox world all of the holy week festivals are kept according to the Julian calendar, which means that their solemn rites will be done this year on Friday, April 13. For the Orthodox, it also called Great Friday and Holy Friday, and in some places it is commemorated by the ritual reading of the twelve passages from the Gospels and solemn hymns and prayers. In some parishes, Orthodox priests will remove icons of Christ from the church and wrap them in linen cloths to represent the burial of Jesus. It is from Eastern Christianity that we derive the customs about decorated Easter Eggs, which remain very popular in the East as a symbol of the resurrection.
This Good Friday will find me venerating the Cross with the kind Carmelite Fathers, who give me hospitality and share their altar with me most weekdays. But this Good Friday night at sunset will also find me as usual, with the Jewish community celebrating Passover once again this year, it being the 15th day of Nisan, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The night is observed with a meal eaten with bitter herbs to recall the bitterness of slavery, horseradish, applesauce and matzo bread to recall the buildings and mortar commanded by Pharaoh’s harsh taskmasters. And there are songs, prayers and good cheer. There are the ritual four cups of wine to mark out the different parts of the Seder meal, and a prize for the child who can find the Afikoman, that crafty bit of matzo bread which gets lost and must be found before the meal can end. It’s not exactly a traditional Catholic Lenten meal. But what would Jesus do?