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Good Friday, as Commemorated in Italy, Greece, and Slovenia

Italy

Good Friday is a day of mourning. Services are held; Christ’s sacrifice is honored. In Italy and Greece, we witness somber processions to churches and cemetery. Monks chant in monasteries. In Slovenia and Italy, we visit two towns re-enacting Christ’s Passion.

Complete Video Script

On Good Friday — the day Jesus was crucified — in churches and communities throughout Europe, the rituals of Easter intensify with more processions, plays, and Holy Masses.

Back in Italy, in Cantiano, the predawn streets stir with groups of young men. Their purpose: to awaken the town. According to tradition, no church bells ring on this sad day. That’s why it’s these crude noisemakers that announce the Good Friday message: Jesus is dead, and it’s time to gather at church.

In the dark and gloomy main church the community — many people just moments out of bed — gathers dressed for the mountain chill. The mood is somber as the priest leads prayers.

The ritual Procession of the Seven Churches begins. The priest leads his congregation to the next church for more prayers. From there, with the priest continually praying and reciting psalms, the procession continues. Eventually the entire gathering reaches the cemetery, where hundreds of candles illuminate both graves and burial niches. The living remember their departed loved ones in this time of communal mourning.

In many Christian traditions, during Good Friday the bells are still and the services are stark — without music. People leave in silence. It’s a time of mourning.

In monasteries, like Monte Oliveto Maggiore, monks chant to sanctify the day. The music and rituals of Good Friday are less joyous as the focus is on Jesus’ suffering and death.

Nearby, in the hill town of Gubbio, hooded penitents — like those in Sevilla — take the sadness of the day into the streets. As they leave the church and process through town they sing the Miserere, a lament expressing the pain of the Crucifixion. The holy statues are carried high — as if floating above legions of mourners. Penitents carry plaques showing icons and tools of the Passion. And common citizens, both adults and children, are part of the procession showing that this ritual — centuries old — continues to be passed on from generation to generation. Processions like these, with their heartfelt songs, seem to flood every corner with great emotion.

And, throughout Europe, Passion Plays stir the same emotions. In Slovenia, the medieval town of Škofja Loka is famed for its Easter play. This version was written by a local monk in 1721, and has been performed ever since. With a cast of a thousand locals and 70 horses, the play is staged in various squares all across the town, with the action coming from all sides and captivating the audience.

It’s a departure from the standard version of the Passion — a morality play that feels both medieval and modern. One message suggests that we’re all equal, whether king or cobbler. Then, when a tormented soul is ravaged by devils, we ask ourself, How will I choose to live my own life? But the most dramatic moments come when things return to the traditional narrative, and all eyes are on a suffering and dying Jesus.

Passion Plays make the torturing of Jesus visceral. As told so vividly in the Bible, Jesus suffered greatly even before being nailed to the Cross: stripped, humiliated, and whipped. Here he hangs, bloody and nearly naked in the bitter cold.

Back in Italy, at Cantiano’s Passion Play, the main square becomes a stage. Under a full moon, in the crisp air, the entire village packs the square to witness this timeless re-enactment.

Villagers take their roles seriously and perform the Passion with passion. For the faithful here, it’s an honor to participate, a sign of devotion and respect. Some of these people play the same role for decades. The entire town becomes a set as Jesus is led to his crucifixion

In the final scene of Cantiano’s Passion Play, the entire cast trudges to the top of the hill. With Jesus in the lead, carrying the cross, it’s an unforgettable and powerful experience. Then, far below, the village gathers for the dramatic last scene: the resurrection of Christ, represented by a shroud blowing from a radiant empty cross.

In Greece, in the city of Nafplio, the warmth of spring is in the air and crowds of people are out enjoying the weather and preparing for the big Easter holiday. Here, Easter is celebrated with a distinct style. For Greek Orthodox Christians, it’s the most celebrated holiday of the year. Because Eastern Orthodox Christians use a different calendar than Western Christians, Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different Sunday. The Greek Orthodox ritual may feel exotic and mystical to many Western eyes and ears. But the storyline is the same — with a few mesmerizing twists.

While worshipping, Orthodox Christians believe standing empowers prayers, and incense helps involve all the senses. The priest typically has a long beard — a sign of wisdom, experience, and respect. He periodically retreats behind an icon-covered wall called an “iconostasis.” Then, to involve all gathered, he circulates among the faithful.

In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the events of Good Friday start the night before. For hours people gather, eventually packing the church. As candles flicker, all generations chant and pray together awaiting each step of the Easter story as it unfolds. The cantors blend music and prayer to heighten the atmosphere of reverence.

Eventually the priest brings the crucified Christ out from behind the iconostasis. After being carried around the church, Jesus is lovingly decked in flowers. The passionate congregation then crowds around to kiss the feet of Jesus. The ritual of mourning continues through the night. Around midnight, as Good Friday arrives, women decorate what’s called the “epitaph,” or symbolic tomb of Jesus, while the choir chants. Well into the wee hours, it’s a family affair filled with tenderness…as flowers create a fragile and beautiful monument to their loss and love.

After dawn, a Good Friday service is held. Christ is removed from the cross. His body is then carried behind the iconostasis. Eventually the priest re-emerges carrying a shroud representing the crucified Christ. He reverently leads it through the congregation of mourners. Eventually the shroud is laid out flat in the ceremonial coffin, and blessed with flower petals. As in any funeral, loved ones pay their last respects. Here, either with a kiss, or if you’re small enough, a trip beneath the epitaph. Once again, the Orthodox mysticism — enhanced by music, incense, and intensely felt prayer — heightens the emotional impact.

On Good Friday evening, the funeral procession starts as the epitaph is carried out of the church. Even as a visitor, I felt as one with those gathered — sharing a familiar holiday — but in a new way.

Churches from three neighborhoods all perform the same ritual funeral procession as they carry their individual epitaphs through town. The three parades converge on the main square, and the epitaphs gather on a stage with the bishop overlooking what seems like the entire population of Nafplio.

The bishop, flanked by the town’s priests, gives an Easter message, reminding his flock why Jesus died, and why there’s reason for hope.