Good Friday and Holy Saturday

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Good Friday night in Pyrgos, Greece
Holy Week, the week before Easter in Late March or April, is celebrated by Christians with a series of events that usually start slowly on Palm Sunday (the day Christ triumphantly entered Jerusalem), builds up to the solemn and gloomy processions on Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified) and climaxes with joyous feasting and festivities Saturday at midnight and Easter Sunday (when Christ was resurrected from the grave).

Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, marks the day Jesus was crucified. It often begin as a solemn affair with funerary-style processions paying homage to the death of Jesus. In Italy a number of cities towns hold Good Friday events. Nemoli in Potenza stages the "Way of the Cross" passion play by torchlight. In Assisi in Perugia the "Agony of the Garden" is recalled in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and a torchlight procession of the Dead Christ traverses the town from cathedral of San Rufino to the Basilica of San Francisco and back. Bevagna in Perugia is the site of the "Procession of the Dead Christ" which dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries and is organized by the confraternity of the Miseirordia. It ends with a brief evocation of the passion acted on the steps a theater.

According to the BBC: “Good Friday is a day of mourning in church. During special Good Friday services Christians meditate on Jesus' suffering and death on the cross, and what this means for their faith. In some countries, there are special Good Friday processions, or re-enactments of the Crucifixion. The main service on Good Friday takes place between midday and 3pm. In many churches it takes the form of a meditation based on the seven last words of Jesus on the cross, with hymns, prayers, and short sermons.

In Calitri in Avellino Good Friday begins at dawn with a procession lead by members of a religious confraternity who wear white hoods surmounted by crowns of thorns and carry crosses on their shoulders, accompanied by choirs singing palms and folk songs. Cheiti commemorates Good Friday with one of Italy's oldest and most evocative processions that features followers in black tunics and grey cloaks, the traditional garments of penitents. Civitavecchia near Rome hosts a procession where penitents in white robes drag chains fixed to their ankles.

Gubbio in Perguria holds a procession that dates back to the 13th century that is accompanied by melancholy penitential chants handed down by oral tradition and sung alternately by two choirs. Lapio honors Good Friday with groups of life-size papier-mâché statues that depict episodes of Christ's Passion and Crucifixion .Mirabella Eclano depicts episodes of the passion with very old and unusual statues of wood and papier mâché. Vercelli has a Good Friday procession of large wooden statue groups representing the Passion of Christ. This event is considered one of the most authentic expressions of religious devotion.

Good Friday is observed throughout Greece with the procession of the "Epitaph" where devoted followers carry lighted candles and chant laments.The Epitaph, a golden embroidered pall symbolizing the body of Christ, is prepared by being literally smothered with flowers and perfume. The faithful kiss the pall and pass underneath it to be touched by grace. At night a solemn procession led by a priest dressed in black begins and ends at a cemetery. Marching along to slow beats of drums the procession stops at squares and crossroads where short prayers are said. Pictures of loved ones who have died that year are sometimes placed inside wreaths that in turn are sometimes placed on the pall.

See Via Dolorosa

Good Friday: Service at Daybreak in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “4.. And when they arrive before the Cross the daylight is already growing bright. There the passage from the Gospel is read where the Lord is brought before Pilate, with everything that is written concerning that which Pilate spake to the Lord or to the Jews; the whole is read. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, ]

“5. And afterwards the bishop addresses the people, comforting them for that they have toiled all night and are about to toil during that same day, (bidding) them not be weary, but to have hope in God, Who will for that toil give them a greater reward. And encouraging them as he is able, he addresses them thus: " Go now, each one of you, to your houses, and sit down awhile, and all of you be ready here just before the second hour of the day, that from that hour to the sixth you may be able to behold the holy wood of the Cross, each one of us believing that it will be profitable to his salvation; then from the sixth hour we must all assemble again in this place, that is, before the Cross, that we may apply ourselves to lections and to prayers until night."

“Column of the Flagellation XXXVII After this, when the dismissal at the Cross has been made, that is, before the sun rises, they all go at once with fervour to Sion, to pray at the column at which the Lord was scourged. And returning thence they sit for awhile in their houses, and presently all are ready.

Veneration of the Cross in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, ]

“2. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, some one is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest any one approaching should venture to do so again.

“3. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring . . . all the people are passing through up to the sixth hour, entering by one door and going out by another; for this is done in the same place where, on the preceding day, that is, on the fifth weekday, the oblation was offered.

Station before the Cross. The Three Hours in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “4. And when the sixth hour has come, they go before the Cross, whether it be in rain or in heat, the place being open to the air, as it were, a court of great size and of some beauty between the Cross and the Anastasis; here all the people assemble in such great numbers that there is no thoroughfare. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, ]

“5. The chair is placed for the bishop before the Cross, and from the sixth to the ninth hour nothing else is done, but the reading of lessons, which are read thus: first from the psalms wherever the Passion is spoken of, then from the Apostle, either from the epistles of the Apostles or from their Acts, wherever they have spoken of the Lord's Passion; then the passages from the Gospels, where He suffered, are read. Then the readings from the prophets where they foretold that the Lord should suffer, then from the Gospels where He mentions His Passion.

“6. Thus from the sixth to the ninth hours the lessons are so read and the hymns said, that it may be shown to all the people that whatsoever the prophets foretold of the Lord's Passion is proved from the Gospels and from the writings of the Apostles to have been fulfilled. And so through all those three hours the people are taught that nothing was done which had not been foretold, and that nothing was foretold which was not wholly fulfilled. Prayers also suitable to the day are interspersed throughout.

“7. The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, who, on that day during those three hours, does not lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord had suffered those things for us. Afterwards, at the beginning of the ninth hour, there is read that passage from the Gospel according to John where He gave up the ghost. This read, prayer and the dismissal follow.

Evening Offices in the 4th Century

Carrying the Cross in Stuttgart
Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “8. And when the dismissal before the Cross has been made, all things are done in the greater church, at the martyrium, which are customary during this week from the ninth hour — when the assembly takes place in the martyrium — until late. And after the dismissal at the martyrium, they go to the Anastasis, where, when they arrive, the passage from the Gospel is read where Joseph begged the Body of the Lord from Pilate and laid it in a new sepulchre. And this reading ended, a prayer is said, the catechumens are blessed, and the dismissal is made. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, ]

“9. But on that day no announcement is made of a vigil at the Anastasis, because it is known that the people are tired; nevertheless, it is the custom to watch there. So all of the people who are willing, or rather, who are able, keep watch, and they who are unable do not watch there until the morning. Those of the clergy, however, who are strong or young keep vigil there, and hymns and antiphons are said throughout the whole night until morning; a very great crowd also keep night-long watch, some from the late hour and some from midnight, as they

Holy Saturday

Easter Saturday is day of silence, waiting and hope. For Catholics the celebration of the resurrection begins with the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, with the blessing of the newly kindled fire and the Paschal Candle, followed by some lengthy readings and a mass.

The Orthodox Christian Holy Saturday celebration is more dramatic. In Greece it is observed with the ceremony of resurrection which begins is a dimly-lit church, symbolizing the darkness in the grave. At ten minutes before midnight a priest dressed in scarlet and gold bursts through the door with lighted candle chanting that Christ has risen. In some churches he kicks open the door, symbolizing the dispersal of demons and evil spirits. The members of the church then light their candles off the candle belonging to the priest.

Jerusalem, Old City Pilgrims
When all the candle are lit the congregation enters the streets chanting "Christ has risen" over and over while they swing their candles to the rhythm of tolling church bells. On the streets the people give each other the "kiss of love" while chanting "He has risen indeed." In ports ship blow their whistles. In some places people give out anise-scented Easter bread and red-and-gold Easter eggs. In many towns children shoot pop guns and fireworks are set off to frighten away the devil (sometimes on the island of Symi hundreds of pounds of dynamite was detonated on a cliff above the harbor for the same purpose). Church bells ring and sometimes "Judas" figures are burnt in huge bonfires.

On the way home from church members try not to extinguish their candles. The candle are used trace a cross inside the house and to light a small candle in front of the family alter. At home a special meal is prepared which features eggs boiled in red dye. It is customary to tap eggs with another person. Whoever's egg doesn't crack will have good luck throughout the year.

Holy Saturday Service

According to the BBC: “Holy Saturday is the Saturday after Good Friday which is often, but wrongly, called Easter Saturday. The Easter vigil service is the first Easter service, and takes place on the night of Holy Saturday. The idea behind the service is for faithful Christians to wait and watch, hopeful and confident that Christ will return at midnight. The Easter, or Paschal, candle is lit during this service. The service traditionally begins outside the church, where minister and some worshippers gather around a fire - a charcoal brazier is common. Holy Saturday is followed by Easter Sunday. [Source: October 7, 2011 BBC |::|]

“The service begins with words like these: Brothers and sisters in Christ, on this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which through word and sacrament we share in his victory over death. |After readings and prayers, the Paschal candle is lit from the fire using a taper, while a prayer like the one below is said. “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, banish all darkness from our hearts and minds.” — Traditional Easter vigil prayer |::|

“The lit candle is now a symbol of Christ, risen as the light of the world, and come into the midst of the people. After being lit outside, the candle is carried into the church, where most of the worshippers are waiting in darkness, which symbolises the darkness of Christ's tomb. After more prayers and readings, the candles held by the congregation are lit from the Paschal candle. The symbolism of the candle is made very clear by words such as: “Grant that this Easter candle make our darkness light; for Christ the morning star has risen, never again to set, and is alive and reigns for ever and ever.” The readings at the service tell of the creation of humanity, how humanity fell from grace, and was repeatedly rescued by God. The readings remind people of God's promise to be with them always. |::|

“The Paschal candle is made of pure white wax and is marked with a cross, an Alpha, and an Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The 4 numbers of the year are marked between the arms. This symbolises that Christ has been, is now and always will be with humanity. |Paschal candles are usually large, and can cost over £100. For much of the year many churches stand the paschal candle near the font used for baptisms. Here it provides a reminder that baptism is a symbolic death and rebirth with Christ; just like Christ's death and Resurrection. |::|

On Holy Saturday in Jerusalem, worshipers celebrate the Miracle of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A flame is said to spontaneously emanate from the stone slab inside the chapel, or Edicule, marking the site of Christ's burial and Resurrection. See Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Easter Ceremony of Fire at the Holy Sepulcher

Easter Saturday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Easter Ceremony of Fire at the Holy Sepulcher is the church’s biggest ceremony and the most sacred ritual for Orthodox Christians. Inside the church the floor space within the rotunda is dived up among the Greeks, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox Christians. For along time the Copts had to hang from scaffolding used to shore up the walls after a 1927 earthquake. The Catholics schedule their ceremony at a different time.

The celebration begins on Friday evening when pilgrims from all over the world amass around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. By noon Saturday police are called in to control the crowd. By Saturday evening about 30,000 or 40,000 people line up outside the church and police have cordoned off the area and subdue pilgrims who scramble to get inside

Only about 15,000 screaming and shouting pilgrims are let inside. They are squeezed into the church so tightly there is little breathing room. Many of them hold burning candles. Police form a circle around Christ's tomb. One journalist saw a man who suffered a heart attack get passed above the crowd like a slam dancer at a punk rock concert.☺

A procession of Armenian, Coptic and Syrian Police thread around the tomb while Copts clap their hands rhythmically. "Just when it seemed impossible for the place to hold any more people," Alan Mairson wrote in National Geographic, “the Syrians came in a great wave, chanting and banging drums in a loud, primal rhythm. Throwing their fists into the air, they led their countrymen in a boisterous celebration of the Virgin Mary and the immanent arrival of the holy fire, a symbolic representation of the light of Christ."

Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The climax of the event is when the Greek Patriarch shows up, in a jewel-encrusted, football-shaped crown, and lights a torch that is used to light the candles of the worshipers in the church. He too walks around the tomb while banners of sacred scenes are waved about and the Copts reach out to touch them. Just before one o'clock a hush descends on the church. The Greek patriarch climbs into the tomb of Christ. Suddenly a flame appears, and with it comes pandemonium. Every one has a candle and they are reaching to have it lit as a priest weaves with a candle through the crowd.

"Men carrying lit candles raced from the tomb to each corner of the church," Mairson wrote. "lighting candles thrust forward by the faithful, who in turn passed the light to their neighbor. Within minutes gloom gave away to a golden glow, as a thousand candles flickered in the dark...It was beautiful, but the scene reminded me of a cross between a soccer match and a barroom brawl. As the church becomes a blaze of candles people shout in Greek "Christ is risen" and other answer back "He is truly risen."☺

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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