Three Hours

Three Hours

According to the Bible Jesus was crucified sometime on the morning of Good Friday (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). At noon the skies darkened and at three in the afternoon Jesus died (Matthew 27:4550, Mark 15:33-37, Luke 23:44-45). Three Hours services commemorate the agony that Jesus endured during the last three hours of his life. They also provide an opportunity for worshipers to meditate on the seven statements that Jesus made from the cross. These statements are found in the four Gospels - books in the Christian Bible describing the life and teachings of Christ. They are:

1. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) 2. To the Good Thief crucified at Jesus' side: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) 3. To Mary, Blessed Virgin: "Woman, behold, your son." To his disciple John: "Behold your mother." (John 19:26-27) 4, "Eloï, eloï, lama sabachthani?" (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46) 5. "I thirst." (John 19:28) 6. "It is finished." (John 19:30) 7. "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46)

Most Three Hours services take place on Good Friday between noon and three o'clock.


Father Alonso Messia, a Roman Catholic priest from Peru, invented the Three Hours devotion in the seventeenth century. This devotion began at noon, when a large crucifix and a number of lighted candles were placed on the altar. The first of Jesus'seven statements was read aloud, after which a priest delivered a sermon on the subject. After listening to this address the worshipers sang hymns, prayed together, and observed a period of silence. This cycle was repeated for each of the seven statements. At three p.m. the priest announced Jesus' death. Worshipers concluded the observance by reciting the Creed, a summary of fundamental Christian beliefs, and asking forgiveness for their sins.

Although Messia receives the credit for having invented this ceremony, it resembles one of the Good Friday services observed by Jerusalem Christians in the late fourth century. Egeria, a western European pilgrim to the Holy Land during that era recorded the outlines of this observance in her diary. According to Egeria the Christian community in Jerusalem gathered together at Golgotha, the site of Jesus'crucifixion, at noon on Good Friday. There they participated in a threehour service that included readings from Hebrew and Christian scripture, prayers, and hymns. The passages from Hebrew scripture, which Christians call the Old Testament, were paired with readings from Christian scripture, or the New Testament. These pairings were designed to demonstrate the fulfillment of biblical prophecies in the life and death of Jesus. The service ended with a reading of the Passion according to St. John. Tears slid down the faces of many worshipers as they listened to this account of Jesus'last days. Afterwards the congregation prayed together and then dispersed.

After its introduction in Peru, the Three Hours devotion spread to other Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. It also migrated across the Atlantic Ocean to Italy and Spain. Eventually it made its way to the United States and England. In Europe famous composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote a piece of music called "Seven Last Words" (1809) especially for the service. Charles Gounod (1818-1893) also wrote music to accompany the service.

Although it achieved its initial popularity among Roman Catholic congregations, Protestants, too, eventually adopted the Three Hours service. In many Protestant churches it has become the main Good Friday observance.

Contemporary Services

Today's Three Hours services vary somewhat in their format. They may include musical offerings performed by trained musicians, special meditations, and other devotional acts not included in older variations of the observance. Nevertheless, the outlines of the service remain the same. Three Hours services generally take place between noon and three p.m. on Good Friday, and provide an opportunity for worshipers to consider Jesus' words and deeds during his last hours on earth.

Further Reading

Harper, Howard. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Seidenspinner, Clarence. Great Protestant Festivals. New York: Henry Schuman, 1952. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
References in classic literature ?
I lay down on the couch in the great cabin to sleep, and slept about three hours, and awaked a little refreshed, having taken a glass of wine when I lay down; after being about three hours awake, it being about five o'clock in the morning, I found myself empty, and my stomach sickish, and lay down again, but could not sleep at all, being very faint and ill; and thus I continued all the second day with a strange variety-- first hungry, then sick again, with retchings to vomit.
The indictment had never been clearly expressed, And it seemed that the Snark had begun, And had spoken three hours, before any one guessed What the pig was supposed to have done.
Reckoning from one time to the other, it must have been quite three hours from the time when I first lay down to the time when I got up again."
They galloped on for two or three hours as furiously as the cavaliers on the wall.
But not a bit of it; and so, in about three hours, I go plump, like a fool, into a camp of Arabs!
Drive all three to death but get me there in three hours. Eh?"
Three hours later several canoes came silently into view from up the Ugambi.
Since three hours were consumed by making camp at night and cooking beans, by getting breakfast in the morning and breaking camp, and by thawing beans at the midday halt, nine hours were left for sleep and recuperation, and neither men nor dogs wasted many minutes of those nine hours.
Mr Jones having spent three hours in reading and kissing the aforesaid letter, and being, at last, in a state of good spirits, from the last-mentioned considerations, he agreed to carry an appointment, which he had before made, into execution.
So I made up my bed on the floor; and he took the first spell, pistol in hand and sword on knee, three hours by the captain's watch upon the wall.
The full moon was about three hours above the eastern horizon; the entire countryside had the solemn stillness of a summer night; our footfalls and the ceaseless song of the katydids were the only sound aloof.
But after three hours the Marionette's eyes were still open, his mouth still shut and his legs kicked harder than ever.