Tradition holds that Jesus hung on the cross for three hours: from noon to 3pm, and so Good Friday services are supposed to happen during this time. Today many churches hold evening services for those who can't get off work in the middle of the day. Such was the service I attended at St. Frances Cabrini (a.k.a. my usual church).
Good Friday services are solemn, dark, and often long. It is also the only day of the year on which Catholics don't celebrate the Mass. To be a Mass, a Catholic service must include the consecration of new communion elements, i.e. the priest must transubstantiate bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus. If communion is served in a Catholic church on Good Friday, it will be from the leftovers from Holy Thursday.
On Good Friday, there's little singing, and what singing there is is mournful and subdued. Instead there's plenty of silence and time for reflection.
The service I attended read the standard Catholic Good Friday readings. The first reading was from Isaiah and described a suffering servant who is either the nation of Israel or the crucified Messiah (Jesus) depending on who you ask. The second was from Hebrews and got too close for my comfort to the idea of Jesus as the perfect sacrificial lamb. The third was the passion according to John. In this context, passion refers to Jesus' betrayal by Judas, Jesus' arrest, trial, carrying of the cross, and final death.
There are two days of the year on which the passion of Jesus is read: Good Friday and Palm Sunday. On Good Friday, the passion according to John is read. On Palm Sunday the passion story comes from whichever Gospel that liturgical year focuses on. The Catholic church goes through a three year cycle of readings for Mass and each year focuses on either the Gospel of Matthew (last year), Mark (this year), or Luke (next year). This collection of readings is known as the Lectionary, and doesn't include the entire Bible.
So this year on Palm Sunday we heard the Passion of Mark which is simple, and cuts to the chase. Mark was, after all, the least educated Gospel writer. In Mark's Gospel Jesus is very human. On the other hand you have the Gospel of John in which Jesus is viewed as the incarnation of the Logos of God. Mark's Gospel begins with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, John's Gospel begins with "In the begining was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God and the Word was God." Mark's Gospel originally ended with the empty tomb (Mark's resurrection stories were most likely added later), and John's Gospel includes several stories of the physically resurrected Jesus.
Before I go overboard on comparing the canonical Gospels, let me point you in the direction of a helpful guide. I spent Good Friday evening after the service reading all four Passion Narratives at the same time. I highly recommend it. Let me just say one more thing though. One of the worst parts of Christian history is that the idea that the Jewish leaders (or even more horribly, the entire Jewish nation) were to blame for Jesus' death has been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism. I was much relieved that during the service I attended, we paused when we came to the part where the Gospel writer had the Jews crying out "crucify him," and spent a moment in silence to show our sorrow that this passage has been used to justify anti-Semitism.
If you read the passion stories in the order in which they were written (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) you will find each progressive Gospel places more and more of the blame for Jesus' false conviction on the Jewish authorities instead of the Roman authorities i.e. Pontius Pilate. By the time you get to the Gospel of John, Pilate is practically begging the Jews to let Jesus go, which is strange considering Emperor Tiberius once chastened Pilate for being so execution happy. So why do the Gospel writers put the blame on the Jews instead of the Romans? Politics. By the time the Gospels were written, Christianity had pretty much split from Judaism. Jews were not on the best terms with the Roman authorities, but now that Christians were no longer grouped with the Jews, they stood a chance at being treated well by the Romans. To improve their chances, the Gospel writers placed the blame for Jesus' death on the Jews and not on the Romans, who were actually the ones responsible. Long digression, but it is important to understand that the Romans killed Jesus, NOT the Jews.
Back to the service, as the passion of John was read a cross was slowly, piece by piece, brought into the center of the church and erected. Once the reading of the passion was finished, and several prayers had been offered, the people were invited to come forward and show their respect for the cross. One-by-one, in very dim light, people came forward to kneel before the cross, touch it reverently, or even kiss it. I stayed a few minutes later reflecting on the power this story still holds two thousand years later.
While it was very dark in the church, I knew, if I waited one more day, the light would return.
What's with the odd picture in this post? It's called Station 3 from Lema Sabachtani, a series of 14 paintings by Barnett Newman, based on the Stations of the Cross.