It’s Holy Week for Christians around the world. And nestled between Palm Sunday and Easter is Good Friday, the 24-hour period when Jesus Christ was sentenced to death, flogged, betrayed and ridiculed, and eventually nailed to the cross do die a “criminal’s death.”
In the United States, millions of Christians will go to church for traditional Good Friday services in remembrance of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But just how much do we know about the final hours of Christ? Occasionally Good Friday might happen at the same time as the Jewish observance of Passover. Some cultures call it Holy Friday, others Black Friday but all observances are based on details found in the Gospels of the New Testament.
Solemn observance since 33 A.D.
The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ likely happened on a Friday, which would have been the day before the Jewish Sabbath. Most Christian denominations estimate the year of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (often called the Passion of Jesus Christ) was 33 A.D. In short, The Gospel accounts state that Judas Iscariot—Christ’s first follower—led the temple guards to Jesus’ location in return for 30 pieces of silver he believed could be spent on the poor. Judas informed the guards that the person he would subsequently kiss was the one they were looking for. After his betrayal and arrest, Jesus was brought to the house of Annas—the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas—and there he was questioned with little response and was subsequently sent on to the high priest where the Sanhedrin had gathered in the middle of the morning.
There was conflicting testimony against Jesus by numerous witnesses, to which Jesus again said little to nothing. Eventually, Caiaphas demanded that Jesus respond under oath, but Jesus testified vaguely, specifically noting that he was neither bound by Rome nor obligated to the Sanhedrin to answer. Caiaphas became enraged and accused Jesus of blasphamy, of which the only appropriate sentence was death. There was a strong defense of Jesus—and a condemnation of a so-called “kangaroo court”—levied by Nicodemus who reminded his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that Judaic law required that a person be heard before being judged. He also condemned the “last-minute” hearing which did not include all members of the governing body; this was also required by Judaic law.
Unjust charges in ‘kangaroo court’
Judas regretted his actions and demanded Jesus’ release; he returned the money to the high priests. Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, was in the courtyard at this time and was spotted by at least three persons who said they saw him with Jesus on various occasions. Sometime earlier, Jesus had specifically said to Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crowed early that morning. It happened precisely the way that Jesus had predicted. Peter left the gathering in disgrace. Judas committed suicide.
At sunrise, the Sanhedrin sent Jesus to the governor of Rome, Pontius Pilate, under charges of undermining the nation, being against taxes for Caesar, and making himself a king. Pilate approved the Jewish leaders to judge Jesus conferring to their laws and implement immediate sentencing. At that time, Jewish leaders could not carry out a death sentence, so he was referred once again to Pilate who questioned him and told a growing crowd of onlookers that Jesus had committed no crime and there was no need for sentencing. In learning that Jesus hailed from Galilee, Pilate referred the case to the King of Galilee, King Herod, who was in Jerusalem in time for Passover. Herod, who served as nothing more than a puppet leader for Rome, received about as much information out of Jesus as did Caiaphas or Pilate. In frustration, Herod returned Jesus to Pilate who again stated to the assembly that first he and now Herod had found no just cause of guilt in Jesus.
‘Washed his hands, sealed his fate’
Pilate ordered that Jesus be severely flogged—but not killed—and be released. The Gospels revealed that, sometime earlier, Pilate’s wife had seen Jesus in a dream and forewarned her husband not to kill him (basically not to have anything to do with Jesus). It was the custom of Rome to release one prisoner for Passover and, unsatisfied with Pilot’s official decree, the chief priests encouraged the mob to ask for the reprieve of a violent criminal, Barabbas, at the time in jail for murder, as opposed to the innocent Jesus. The crowd demanded Jesus’ death by crucifixion, this time hearing about a new charge that Jesus had proclaimed to be the son of God. Once again, Pilate went before the crowd and declared Jesus to be innocent … and proceeded to wash his hands in water to demonstrate he wanted no part in the condemnation.
In order to prevent a certain riot—and to keep his job—Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified under the sentence “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Jesus was forced to carry his cross to the site of his execution—known as Golgotha in Hebrew or Calvary in Latin—and was briefly helped along the way by a man historically called Simon of Cyrene. Jesus’ wrists were bound and each palm was nailed to the horizontal beams of the cross; his two feet were broken and placed together and nailed to the vertical beam.
It is generally believed that Jesus suffered on the cross for six hours with two other convicted criminals who were also crucified. Crucifixion was the Roman method of implementing the death penalty. During his last three hours—from noon to 3 p.m.—darkness reportedly covered the land and with a final, loud cry, Jesus gave up his spirit and died. When this happened, scripture reveals that there was an earthquake, tombs broke open, and a sacred tapestry that hung in the Temple was ripped from top to bottom. History also reveals that a centurion who was on guard during the crucifixion declared that Jesus, indeed, was God’s son. What occurred over the next 48 hours would be remembered for 2,000 years.
Different church, specific reverence
Within the Christian community, Good Friday is not a day of celebration but, rather, a day of observance. The many denominations within Christianity observe Good Friday with specific reverence and solemnity. Roman Catholics will pray before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and in addition to conducting Holy Mass, many Catholic churches may also have the Stations of the Cross. Some Christian communities (Catholic and others) conduct Passion plays. Other persons will fast on Good Friday (while others will eat very lightly). Catholics will traditionally stop what they’re doing at precisely 3 p.m. and pray. Byzantine Catholics are required to fast from all meat and dairy products (including eggs), and most will attend Matins with the reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels and the Entombment Vespers.
Protestants observe many traditions on Good Friday, but generally will attend services with their Bible and follow the directions of their minister or pastor.
Unfortunately, research finds that American church attendance is down … and has been for the past 40 years. A Gallup poll conducted in 2014 revealed that only four in 10 persons reported attending church the previous week. That year, an average of 56 percent of Americans said religion was “very important” in their lives, while another 22 percent said it was ‘fairly important” and an additional 22 percent reported religion was “not very important.” The Gallup measurement of church attendance was based on individuals’ assessments of their own behavior and was not always directly related to actual attendance on a weekly basis. Various studies conducted over the years have suggested that Americans may over-report their attendance at religious services, but generally, since the 1960s, weekly church attendance ranged between 40 and 60 percent. As the Gallup poll indicated, however, these figures are often marked by year-to-year fluctuations (e.g. less than 40 percent of Americans reported attending church regularly from the period between 1996 and 2008, but church attendance was as high as an average of 44 percent in the year 2000 and again in 2004).
Is the church dying?
Is the church dying? Is it in transition? Research finds many opposing answers to each question. The Hartford Institute of Religion Research conducted a study in 2013 and found that more than 40 percent of Americans “say” they attend church regularly, but as it turned out, less than 20 percent of those respondents actually attend regular Sunday morning services. In other words, based on the Hartford Institute study, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding other things to do on Sunday morning. As well, the Hartford study revealed that anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 churches close their doors every year, likely based on a survey fact that indicated that between the years 2010 and 2012, more than half of all churches in America did not add one new member.
Practically all surveys of religious activity attest that Sunday attendance in conventional churches is dropping. This year, the Huffington Post published a study that found that turnout in the United Church of Christ has dropped below a million; the Episcopal Church estimates its population at 1.8 million, down from three million in the 1960s. Membership in the Presbyterian Church-USA fell by 46 percent from 1965 to 2005, and the United Methodists have lost 4.5 million in their American churches since 1964.
Not all denominations are suffering at this rate. The same study revealed that non-White independent churches are growing, thereby balancing the losses in mostly White evangelical denominations and mimicking the nation’s on-going socio-political shifts. And although African American evangelicals still hold tight to traditional personal and family morals, church attendance in the Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal denominations have fallen over the past 40 years, but not as dramatically as with other church groups. The growing Latino population has resulted in a slight increase in overall Catholic church attendance.
Who are ‘religiously unaffiliated?’
Each year, according to the Hartford study, about 3 million additional “previous churchgoers” enter what is rapidly being called the “religiously unaffiliated.” Exactly who these “unaffiliated” persons are remains an elusive pursuit.
The Barna Group conducts research and produces articles about faith and Christianity. They suggest that the “unaffiliated/unattached” population consists of persons who attend neither a conventional church nor an “organic” faith community (e.g. house church, small or “storefront” church or belong to an international community of believers). Some of these unattached persons use religious media, but they do not engage in any personal interaction with a regularly-convened faith community.
Then there are the “intermittents” who represent adults who are, essentially, “under-churched” meaning that they have sporadically participated in either a conventional church or an organic faith community within the past year, but not in the previous month. About one of every seven adults, according to the Barna Group, is considered an intermittent.
“Homebodies” represent individuals who rarely attend a conventional church service, opting rather to visit a meeting of a house church. They represent about 3 percent of the religiously-affiliated population. The “blenders” are adults who attend each month both a conventional church and a house church. Most of these persons say the conventional setting is their regular “church home,” but many of them will experiment with new forms of the faith community.
Witnessing the ‘presence’ of God
The Barna Group conducted a study in 2010 and reported that, among adults who were churched either conventionally or alternatively, 15 percent of those individuals said they had experienced the presence of God or expressed their faith in God through a faith-oriented website. Half as many (7 percent) said they had such an experience through a real-time event on the Internet. Also, one out of every eight churched adults (13 percent) reported they had experienced the presence of God or expressed their faith in God through a ministry that met in a “marketplace” (e.g. workplace, athletic event, etc.) during the previous month. Twice as many churched people (28 percent) said they had experienced the presence of God or expressed their faith in God through their involvement with a special ministry event such as a worship concert, devotional, revival or community service activity.
Most persons within the unattached population revealed that they consider themselves to be Christian. In fact, about 17 percent of these individuals are born-again Christians who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that they consider to be a very important part of their life, and that they believe they will experience Heaven after they die, because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Christ as their personal savior.
George Barna, whose 2002 book “Grow Your Church From the Outside In” discusses people who are not connected to a church, said most people who live without a regular face-to-face connection with any church tend to be somewhat isolated from the mainstream of society. They’re mostly noncommittal in institutional and personal relationships and generally revel in their independence.
Refilling pews not so easy
“Attempting to get them involved in the life of a church is a real challenge,” Barna explained. “The best chance of getting them to a church is when someone they know and trust invites them, offers to accompany them, and there is reason to believe the church event will address one of the issues or needs they are struggling with at that moment.”
In yet another survey, the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that the percentage of Americans who say they “seldom” or “never” attend religious services (aside from weddings or funerals) has risen modestly in the past decade. Roughly three-in-10 U.S. adults (29 percent) said they seldom or never attend worship services, up from 25 percent in 2003. The share of people who say they attend services at least once a week has remained relatively steady: 37 percent say they attend weekly church services, compared to 39 percent a little over a decade ago.
The Pew survey was similar to the Barna Group study in illustrating the growing number of religiously unaffiliated adults. Nationwide, the vast majority of respondents said they were presently not looking for a religion, and relatively few (5 percent) said they go to services weekly or more often. Researchers did not indicate why persons who say they have a definite religious affiliation generally don’t attend weekly services, but they did find out that people will cite personal priorities such as 16 percent who said they’re simply too busy on Wednesday evenings or Sunday mornings. Another 24 percent of respondents mentioned practical difficulties such as work conflicts, health problems or transportation difficulties. The most common religion-related responses included disagreements with the beliefs of the religion or their church leaders, or beliefs that attending worship services is not that important. Basically, in reference to the Pew survey findings, about one in 10 people said there is no particular reason that they don’t attend church regularly … it’s simply because other activities tend to occupy their time.