For many of us, Good Friday is a day to get through. No meat, plus fasting, plus something about two small meals and one larger meal, usually equals low energy, crabbiness, and trouble concentrating on tasks at work or at home.
Fasting and The Gift of Good Friday
Call me crazy, but Good Friday is actually my favorite day out of the entire Church year. Yes, the fasting can make the day difficult, but if you think about it, Good Friday is an amazing gift. We get an entire day to contemplate the very great price of our salvation–Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. And we get to involve not just our head and our heart, but our physical bodies as well in that holy contemplation.
Understanding the Church’s teachings about fasting and penance and the prayers and liturgies of the day can make Good Friday feel like less of a day to get through, and more like the gift that it is. It could even become your favorite day of the Church year.
What’s the deal with fasting?
According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law “abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Canon 1251). That means that in addition to abstaining from meat, as we do every Friday throughout Lent, we are also called to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops defines fasting as eating “one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.” You can drink liquids between meals, but no solid food should be consumed.
Who is required to fast?
People ages 14 and up are required and abstain from meat, and people ages 18-59 are required to fast (see Canon Law 1252).
Are there any exceptions?
Yes. According the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, those who are physically or mentally ill, those with chronic illnesses, like diabetes, and pregnant or nursing women are exempt.
What do I do if I’m not able to fast?
This is my third time being pregnant during Lent. If I were to attempt fasting while pregnant I would end up passing out. But even though I’m not fasting, I try to keep a spirit of penance in my meals. I abstain from meat, and avoid other foods that I especially enjoy, namely, sweets and coffee. I also choose to fast from TV, social media, and other things that could distract me from the meaning of the day.
Why Fasting Matters
Now that we know the “rules” for fasting, we need to understand the spiritual significance of fasting. Canon 1252 talks about the importance of being “educated in an authentic sense of penance.” Penance is an act or outward sign that helps us turn away from sin and back to God. Our fasting and abstinence is a tangible way for us to express our sorrow for the sins we have commited. Every time we feel a pang of hunger on Good Friday we are reminded to say with our bodies, along with our hearts, “Lord, I am sorry for my sin that lead You to the Cross. With this act of penance, I am offering myself to You.”
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How do I carry on with daily life while fasting?
I think we all know that it can be really difficult to go about daily life on an empty stomach. That’s why on Good Friday I try not to carry on with daily life. As much as possible, I try to save the day for prayer, reflection, and penance. I don’t socialize on Good Friday, and when I was working outside the home, I tried to take the day off. I don’t schedule appointments on Good Friday and my kids don’t go to school.
The way I see it is, if Jesus hung on the Cross and died for me, surely I can take one day off from my regular programming to remember and honor His death. Yet, if you are unable to set aside your whole day, you can still unite your heart to Jesus’ Passion through offering your hunger pangs. He labored long and hard the day He died, and if we have to, we can as well.
So what do I do all day?
It can be tempting on Good Friday to just crawl under the covers and sleep our way to Holy Saturday. But there are a lot of things you could do in the way of prayer and penance on Good Friday. Chances are, your local parish already offers many of them.
Most churches offer Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, usually at 3:00 pm, which is the hour of Jesus’ death. Some parishes offer Confession. Pro-life groups often hold prayer vigils on Good Friday to pray for an end to abortion. Working on light preparations for Easter is an entirely appropriate activity for Good Friday. Of course, having time of quiet prayer and reflection at home is always a good idea.
The Good Friday service at your parish is the perfect way to end the day. It is a beautiful and solemn liturgy. When we take the time to walk to Calvary with Jesus and stand under His Cross, it only makes Easter Sunday all the more glorious.
The Beauty of the Good Friday Liturgy
If you attend your parish’s Good Friday service, you will notice it’s pretty different than your standard Sunday Mass. First of all, it’s not a Mass! Good Friday is the only day in the entire year that the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not celebrated. Communion is still distributed, but it is from the hosts consecrated on Holy Thursday. The Liturgy of the Eucharist, which the Church throughout the world celebrates every other day of the year, is a proclamation of Christ’s victory over death. The lack of that liturgy on Good Friday reminds us of the immense agony and humiliation that Jesus went through to bring about that victory.
You may notice other unusual things at your church on Good Friday. The altar is stripped bare, there are no plants, flowers, or candles, and depending on the church you go to, and there is little to no music. Why? All of these things are symbols of joy and festivity. On Good Friday, we are in mourning for the death of our Lord.
You may also notice that the Gospel reading is really long. It’s two entire chapters from the Gospel of St. John! Resist the urge to fidget or glaze over. Pay attention, there is crowd participation. What words do you hear yourself saying? “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” It is unnerving to play the part of the angry mob, demanding Jesus’ death. In my head I think, “Lord I would never crucify You.” But saying those words out loud reminds me that is was in fact my sins that took Jesus to the Cross.
The Solemn Intercessions and The Veneration of the Cross
The Solemn Intercessions and The Veneration of the Cross are two other elements of the Good Friday liturgy that you won’t find any other day. The Intercessions are a beautiful reminder that Jesus’ death was for the entire world. They entail more kneeling than usual. When my knees start to hurt from hitting the kneeler so many times I think of Jesus, falling to the ground under the weight of a heavy cross. During the Veneration of the Cross, we can kneel before or even kiss the crucifix as a way to say thank you to Jesus.
Good Good Friday
What an amazing gift, that Jesus would suffer and die for us. And what an amazing gift that we can take an entire day and honor His suffering and death. It is a solemn day, it is a heavy day, but it is also a day of incredible love. This love endures beatings and lashings, insults and humiliations, a crown of thorns, a heavy cross, and nails being driven through flesh. As we move through Good Friday, let us reflect on this love over and over, and repeat a simple prayer to ourselves:
You did this, Lord, out of love for me. Thank you, Jesus, I love you.
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Anna Coyne is a Minnesota native, wife, mother, and convert to the Catholic faith. When not chasing after her two young children, she is probably making pour-over coffee, knitting, gardening, playing the piano, or sipping on a glass of red wine. Find out more about her here.