Even if you’re only remotely familiar with Catholicism, you’ll probably be aware that Good Friday is a special day in the Church’s calendar. In fact, it is one of the most holy days in the entire church year. It is the day where Catholics and Christians around the world commemorate the passion, crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.
Why do we call it Good Friday?
Although it sounds strange to consider such a solemn occasion as ‘good’, there are several theories as to why we remember this day as Good Friday.
Perhaps the most obvious is that the events of Good Friday culminated in the joy and salvation of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. So, even though Jesus’ suffering and death was not ‘good’, what it led to most definitely was.
Another theory is that the ‘good’ in Good Friday comes from an antiquated use of the word, meaning ‘holy’. This makes sense when looking at different translations of Good Friday (e.g. Viernes Santo (Sacred Friday) in Spanish, Passion Friday in Russian, etc.).
What do we do on Good Friday?
Good Friday is a very solemn day in the Catholic Church.
It is a day of fasting and abstinence from eating meat. This is because eating meat was associated with feasts and celebration, and the Church felt it was inappropriate for the day that Jesus died.
Fish is fine, as in the early church many people were fishermen, so there was nothing special or celebratory about dining on fish.
Traditionally, there is no Mass and no celebration of the Eucharist. If there is a liturgy, communion is taken from hosts consecrated on Holy Thursday. Church bells are silent. Altars are left bare. This air of solemnity continues until the Easter Vigil.
Catholics remember the events of Good Friday by participating in the Stations of the Cross, and attending the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion and Veneration of the Cross (typically held at 3pm, as it is believed this is the time of Jesus’ death).
The practice of venerating the cross is thought to have begun in Jerusalem in the fourth century, where (according to tradition) a fragment of wood from the Lord’s cross was found by St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, in 326. During a service in Jerusalem, the relic was brought forward and placed on the altar, and the faithful came forward to touch or kiss it and kneel before it. This practice was adopted by the Church in Rome, and has been part of our Good Friday traditions ever since.
Why do we eat Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday?
Hot Cross Buns are eaten to mark the end of Lent, as they contain the dairy products that were traditionally forbidden during the Christian period of fasting.
They are marked with a cross to represent Jesus’ crucifixion and full of spices that signify the spices used at his burial.
One story suggests that an English monk in the 12th or 14th century was the first to bake the buns and mark them with a cross in honour of Good Friday, which he then distributed to the poor.
Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500’s forbade the sale of hot cross buns and other spiced breads, except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. If you were caught selling them outside of this time you had to give all your goods to the poor! Nowadays hot cross buns appear in shops as early as December.
English folklore includes many superstitions surrounding hot cross buns. One of them says that buns baked and served on Good Friday will not spoil or grow mouldy during the subsequent year. Another encourages keeping such a bun for medicinal purposes. A piece of it given to someone ill is said to help them recover.
If taken on a sea voyage, hot cross buns are said to protect against shipwreck. If hung in the kitchen, they are said to protect against fires and ensure that all breads turn out perfectly. The hanging bun is replaced each year.