Why is Good Friday good?

good-fridayToday, Good Friday, is the day that Christians traditionally commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Given the solemn nature of the observance, it’s often asked why is today called Good Friday?  There are a number of explanations that can be found in modern literature, but the real reason is actually unknown.  The term Good Friday has been in use in English since at least the early middle ages and its exact origin has been lost in the mists of time.  Some believe that the term good is used to acknowledge the goodness that came out of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that explanation has no historical foundation and still doesn’t address the tone of this specific day; rather, it would be more believable if Easter had been called Good Sunday.

Some believe that good became switched with God at some point, but given the seriousness of the occasion to Christians, it seems unlikely that such a mistaken substitution would have been possible.  And, even though good was spelled göd in Old English, the etymologies of god and good are quite different; the root of good going all the way back to Sanskrit.

The most likely explanation for term Good Friday has its roots in the Jewish religion.  Paraskeue was a Greek word used by Hellenistic Jews as applied to the word Friday, but meaning more than just the day; it came to mean preparation for the Sabbath.  The word was also applied at times to the eve of certain sabbatic festival days.  For the Greeks, the word came to be eventually applied to every Friday, but the Romans adopted the word, modified it slightly to parasceve, and in the Roman Missal they only used the term for the Friday we now call Good Friday.  A direct translation from the Roman Missal called Good Friday the Holy and Great Friday.  It seems only natural that from this formal Latin term came a shortened version of Good Friday, especially since the Latin word for great was often applied to application of the word good meaning pious or holy.  Hence, Good Friday means the holy and great Friday and for Christians is distinguished from all other Fridays.

In many countries today, including most of those in central and eastern Europe, including Poland, Bosnia, Greece, and Hungary, Good Friday is known as Great Friday.  Great Friday is also the term of this day in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  In many countries with Romantic languages, such as France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, the term used is Holy Friday.  The prevalence of these two terms, great and holy, lends further credence to the etymology of Good Friday from the Latin term as noted in the Roman Missal.

The Germans have a specific term for Good Friday – Karfreitag, which literally means lamentation Friday. Kar comes from the Old High German and means sorrows or worries; freitag means Friday.

The countries of northern Europe, including the Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands use the term Long Friday; almost assuredly a reference to the prolonged suffering of Christ on this day.  In some Middle Eastern and Asian countries, the term used is Sad Friday.

Good Friday is part of the Paschal Triduum, also known as the Easter Triduum or Holy Tridumm.  This term is used to denote the three holy days of the Easter season, or Eastertide, beginning with the evening of Maundy Thursday, continuing with Good Friday, and ending the evening of Holy Saturday (the day prior to Easter).  These days are also known as the “still days” during which time church services often omit the use of music and the ringing of bells, and silence is observed among worshipers.

Maundy Thursday, observed on the day prior to Good Friday, commemorates the Last Supper.  The history behind the term Maundy is much better known than Good Friday and is derived from Latin, through Old French and Middle English, from the word mandatum meaning “commandment” and which, in Latin, is the first word in the phrase, ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.” According to the Gospel of John in 13:34, this is the statement made by Jesus to his Apostles following the Last Supper.

The Paschal Triduum is part of the overall Holy Week.  The Holy Week is the last week of Lent and begins on Palm Sunday, the Sunday prior to Easter, and ends on the Saturday prior to Easter (specifically not including Easter day).  Palm Sunday commemorates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  Traditionally, the day was marked by the distribution of palm leaves to worshipers, but because palm leaves were not available in many locations, leaves from native trees, such as box, yew, or willow, were used.  This led to the alternative names for Palm Sunday: Yew Sunday or Branch Sunday.

One other day during Holy Week worth mentioning is Holy Wednesday, the Wednesday prior to Good Friday.  This day is also known as Spy Wednesday, a reference to the first mention in the Bible of Judas Iscariot’s collaboration with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus.

Tomorrow’s posting discusses the term computus, the word denoting the calculation of the date of Easter, and the various other holy days both before and after Easter.

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