Good Friday memorializes the day that Jesus was killed--at 3:00 in the afternoon. The scripture indicates that people were surprised that He died so quickly. Crucifixion was not a short death but a slow agonizing one. The Bible says that they sent people out to break the legs of the people on the crosses. I never really understood what that meant, and as a kid, I thought it meant that they took them off the crosses then broke their legs so they couldn't go anywhere. The reality is more horrifying. Apparently, after awhile a person's arms could no longer hold them up properly, but if they sagged, the person would start to suffocate because they couldn't breathe properly. They used their feet to push themselves back up into position so they could breathe. Breaking their legs prevented that, so they died more quickly by suffocation (though many people preferred a quick death by suffocation to a slow one, so if your family had money, they might pay off the soldiers to break your legs).
Because of the terrible nature of His death, the cross was not used as a religious symbol for a very long time. Think of it this way, if your religious hero had been killed by hanging, would you want to wear a little noose around your neck in rememberance? Now, of course, the cross is such a powerful symbol of Christianity, a little cross by a person's name on a tomb indicates their faith. People wear crosses--I myelf have three. However, most Protestant denominations prefer the empty cross while Catholics prefer the crucifix--a cross with a corpus (body). I think it shows a difference in the emphasis placed on the events of the Passion--are we saved because He died, or are we saved because He rose again?
The cross plays a very important role in Good Friday services in the Catholic Church. I say services, and not Mass, deliberately; Good Friday is the one day of the year that Mass is not celebrated anywhere in the world. Mass is a celebration and Good Friday is not a day of celebration, it is a day of repentance and mourning. It is a day of fast and abstinence. There will be communion, but it will be eucharist that was consecrated yesterday for the purpose of using it on Good Friday. Much of the service will focus on the cross. The priest will process in and lay prostrate in front of it (face down on the floor). When this happens, all of the congregation kneels. You kneel until the priest gets up and there is no proscribed amount of time for the prostration. The Passion is read and when we come to the part where it says, "When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, "It is finished." And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit," we all kneel again until the priest decides it's been long enough. Finally, there is the veneration of the cross.
I had never attended a Good Friday service until my sophomore year in college. I had absolutely no idea what it entailed. Therefore, I was not at all prepared for the veneration of the cross. A friend of mine described her first experience once by saying her first thought was, "My God, my Protestant friends are right--we are pagan--they're kissing the cross!" That's pretty much what I thought, too. Frankly, I can't think of anything Catholics do that more closely relates to paganism than the veneration of the cross. Like the statues in our churches, however, we are not worshiping the cross. We are worshiping Jesus and remembering his sacrifice for us and veneration of the cross is showing our respect for the instrument of his death which brought about our salvation.
Not all that long ago, there was another ritual on Good Friday: as one, the assembly cursed the "pefidous Jews" who killed our savior. This has never happened in my lifetime--it was discontinued as a result of Vatican II--and I was honesty shocked and ashamed when I found out about it. Having been raised post-Vatican II, I was taught to respect the Jews and I was absolutely never told to blame them for the death of Jesus. It was made very clear to me that Jesus's death was necessary for our salvation, that He planned for it, knew it would happen, and did nothing to stop it, so great was His love for us. It honestly never even occured to me to blame anyone or anything other than the depravity of humanity that had made His death necessary.
Which was why I was terribly confused about all the bruhaha that surrounded Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." To me, it was simply an enactment of the events of the Bible. I couldn't understand what the Jewish community was so afraid of. It seemed like their primary concern was that they showed the Jewish leaders as orchestrating the crucifixion and I didn't see how Jews could expect that to be altered since that was what was written in the Bible.
Poor, naive me. I had no idea that my Church had a history of staging Passion plays during Holy Week, then going out in mad, angry mobs, storming the Jewish ghettos, and beating Jews to within inches of their lives (or to death). Granted, this was hundreds of years ago, but it's not the kind of thing you forget if you were of the people who were being beaten. I had no idea that my Church had a history of cursing Jews every Good Friday, of promoting the idea that Jews murdered our savior, that every great cathedral in Europe has some sort of statue or painting or stained glass window to symbolize how terrible Judaism was. I was in for quite a rude awakening. I found all of this out because I had Jewish friends who got me involved in interfaith dialog groups and seminars--one specifically about the movie. To say that I was shocked and horrified is an understatement. It reminded me of how I felt when I left the holocaust museum in DC--terribly ashamed.
The Church has made some amends. And certainly future generations of Catholics will be just as naive about the persecution of Jews that the Church engaged in for so long, so they will never have that model to emulate (although it is not the best policy to conceal the mistakes of the past). I feel though, as a member of the Church, I should offer some penance for this travesty. So, I tell every Jewish person I know about what is taught to us about the crucifixion. I also tell them the current official doctrine, so that they can defend themselves against crazy Christians who tell them they murdered Jesus. To all the Jewish people who read this (if there are any), here is what you should say,
"Because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, there was a rift between humanity and God. According to your scripture, Jesus came to heal that rift and that could only be accomplished by his death. Therefore, if Jesus had not died, humanity would not be saved and would not be completely reconciled with God. A small number of Jews at the time were made to be the instruments of the death that Jesus himself planned. As it is, we have done you a favor, and you're very welcome."
Then run like hell.
Alternately, you could address a completely ridiculous accusation with an equally ridiculous answer, "He did rise again, you know. It's not like we did any permanent damage."
Then run like hell.