On the Friday evening before Easter one year during high school, I filed into my friend's church and sat down near the back.
I'd never attended a Good Friday service before, and I was soaking in the details. The sanctuary was fancier than ours; it had stained-glass windows, high ceilings, and beautiful beamed arches. Then the service began, somberly. At set points throughout the service, lights were turned off so that in the final moments a single spotlight illumined a cross on the stage. Everyone sang, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"
We sang a couple of verses, each one drearier than the previous, ending with these lines: "Sometimes it causes me to tremble / Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?" The final light was extinguished. Everyone left in silence.
I was disgusted. Where is the joy? I wondered. Easter is not the time to mourn and celebrate the death of Jesus. It's about life. To me, leaving Jesus dead in the tomb was as bad as leaving him dead on the cross.
Nearly a decade later, the observance of Good Friday that I found so offensive then has become deeply meaningful to me.
Following the Church's Calendar
Easter is one of three major celebrations in the liturgical year. The liturgical year, or Christian calendar, is how many Christians have marked the passage of time for centuries. It's a potential antidote to trendiness. Instead of following the "Hallmark calendar" (think Mother's Day, Independence Day and Halloween), the liturgical year is subdivided by major events in the Gospel. It begins with Advent, the month-long preparation before Christmas. A few months later is Easter, which is followed by Pentecost. The remainder of the year is called "ordinary time," the season when the Church reflects on its mission.
I've been marking time by the liturgical calendar for about three years now. It's taken some adjusting. But it forces me to think seriously about the whole Gospel story.
Easter the Old-Fashioned Way
The Easter season begins 40 days before Easter Sunday on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a day of mourning—you know, sackcloth and ashes. In many churches, a pastor will draw a cross with ash on worshipers' foreheads to signify the beginning of Lent.
The 40 days of Lent correspond to the time Jesus spent being tempted in the desert before his public ministry. During Lent, Christians examine their hearts and are particularly diligent about putting away sinful behaviors. People often give something up for Lent. This period is a reminder that following Christ means dying to myself every day.
The final week before Easter is known as Holy Week. Each observation during Holy Week corresponds to an event in the final week of Jesus' life. The Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday, a celebration of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The remaining observances are clustered around the end of the week and each one is marked by a special service. Maundy Thursday corresponds to the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples—the Last Supper. Appropriately, many churches observe Maundy Thursday with foot-washing and Communion.
Good Friday is a remembrance of our Savior's death. The service is dark and somber, and focuses on a reading of the Passion story. The last impression on Good Friday is a loud noise like the driving of nails. Then the congregation leaves in silence.
Holy Saturday represents the day Jesus spent dead in the grave. It is the darkest day in the Christian calendar, a time to reflect on the gravity of sin and to pray for those who wait for the Resurrection of the Dead.