The events of last twenty-four hours of our Savior’s life can be a bit confusing to fit into a chronology. No single gospel relates all that happened, and (what is more difficult) some of the gospels seem to contain points of contradiction.
Here, I will set forth a simple chronology of the events from the Last Supper through Christ’s burial. But first, we will show the Catholic tradition regarding the question of whether Holy Thursday or Good Friday was the feast of Passover.
The Last Supper was a Passover Meal
That the Last Supper was a Passover Meal is clear from both Scripture and Tradition. This is made explicit by Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke.
And on the first day of the Azymes [i.e. of the Unleavened Bread], the disciples came to Jesus, saying: Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the pasch [i.e. the Passover Lamb]? (Matthew 26:17)
And St. Mark tells us that this was also the day in which the priests celebrated the Passover: Now on the first day of the unleavened bread, when they [i.e. the priests of the Temple] sacrificed the pasch, the disciples say to him: Whither wilt thou that we go, and prepare for thee to eat the pasch? (Mark 14:12)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms this: “By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning” (CCC 1340)
Now, the Jewish feast of Passover extended from the eve of the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan through to the following day. The Passover meal was celebrated on the eve of the day of Passover. Further, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread continued for the octave, that is, the next seven days.
Thus, as is clear from the Scriptures themselves, our Lord celebrated the Last Supper as a Passover meal (on the eve of 14 Nissan), at the same time as the priests offered the Passover in the Temple.
Reconciling St. John with the Synoptics
Some claim that St. John is in tension (or even open contradiction) with the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). However, St. John never states anything which is contrary to the other Evangelists.
St. John tells us that the Last Supper occurred, Before the festival day of the pasch (John 12:1). However, he counts time according to the natural distinction of days (from midnight to midnight), rather than according to the Jewish ritual (from sundown). Thus, when he states that the Last Supper is before the festival of Passover, he means that it was on the evening before the first full day of Passover – in other words, the eve of Passover, which is to say, 14 Nissan (just as the Synoptics state).
Likewise, when St. John tells us that the chief priests did not enter into Pilate’s hall on Friday morning so that they might not be defiled, but that they might eat the pasch (John 18:28), he does not intend that the Passover meal (including the paschal lamb) was to be eaten Friday evening. Rather, St. John here refers to the Paschal victims which were sacrificed during the whole seven days of the feast of Unleavened Bread.
Further, when St. John states that Friday was the parasceve of the pasch (i.e. the day of preparation for the Passover), he does not mean that it was the eve of Passover itself, but the eve of the Solemn Sabbath in the Passover Octave (cf. John 19:14).
Indeed, that St. John makes this explicit when he speaks of the soldier thrusting Christ’s side threw with a spear:
Then the Jews, (because it was the parasceve [i.e. day of preparation]) that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the Sabbath day, (for that was a great Sabbath day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away (John 19:31).
From this, we are to understand not that the Passover fell on Saturday that year, but that the Saturday was the Solemn Sabbath after the Passover (which came on Thursday eve – Friday, as the other Evangelists relate).
This is the Latin Tradition, and has been maintained in the Church for nearly two-thousand years. It is simply astonishing that so many modern “scholars” dismiss this long-held tradition to run after ill-conceived and wholly fanciful theories about the Essenes and Qumran.
Even the Greeks, following St. John Chrysostom, generally maintain that Christ celebrate the Last Supper on the true eve of Passover (14 Nissan) – claiming that the priests of the Temple delayed the Passover a day in order to crucify Jesus.
Mid-day: Jesus’ disciples prepare the upper room for the Passover meal.
About 6pm: Our Savior begins the Passover meal with his disciples.
After the institution of the Eucharist and the reception of communion by all twelve of the Apostles (and our Lord himself), Judas receives the dipped morsel (which was not the Eucharist, but simple bread) and departs.
About 8pm: Jesus goes forth to the Garden of Gethsemane.
About 9pm: Judas leads the soldiers to Jesus and the other apostles. Our Lord is arrested.
All flee, excepting Sts. Peter and John.
From 9pm till midnight: Jesus is brought first to Annas and then to Caiaphas. These are the first two trials which our Lord undergoes. The trial before Caiaphas is often called the “Night Trial before the Sanhedrin”.
During the trial at the house of Annas, St. Peter denies Jesus the first time.
During the trial before Caiaphas, St. Peter denies the Lord twice more. The cock crows, and Peter flees weeping.
It is here that the Temple guards blindfold our Lord and strike him, asking him to prophecy for them.
Our Lord spends the evening in the dungeon of Caiaphas’ house.
6am: The Lord is brought to a brief trial before the Sanhedrin. They send him directly to Pilate.
Immediately after Jesus is sent forth from the Sanhedrin to Pilate, Judas returns to the chief priests, regretting his betrayal. Returning the money, Judas departs and hangs himself (probably before noon).
From 6am to 9am: The fourth trial now, which is before Pilate, is very brief. The Lord is sent to Herod (the fifth trial) and then back to Pilate. The second time before Pilate is the occasion of the more extensive questioning of Jesus by Pilate, including the infamous question: What is truth? (John 18:38)
The fifth trial (which is before Pilate) is when the Jews choose Barabbas over Jesus.
About 10am: The crowds ask for Jesus to be crucified.
Jesus is scourged, crowned with thorns, cloaked in purple, and mocked.
Then, taking up the Cross, our Savior begins the journey to Golgotha.
A little before noon: Jesus reaches Golgotha, the place of the skull.
Then, he is stripped and nailed to the Cross.
From noon until 3pm: Our Lord hangs, crucified upon the blessed Cross. Darkness covers the land.
3pm: Jesus dies. The veil of the Temple is split in two. The earth shakes.
A little before 5pm: St. Joseph of Arimathea courageously goes to Pilate and requests the body of Jesus. To prove that our Lord has expired, the centurian thrusts a lance through Christ’s side – blood and water pour forth.
Jesus’ body is prepared for burial by Nicodemus, the women, and his Mother.
Before 6pm: Our Savior is laid in the tomb. A stone is sealed across the entrance.
Reconciling the time of the crucifixion
St. Mark states that the crucifixion occurred at the third hour (i.e. nine in the morning). And it was the third hour, and they crucified him (Mark 15:25)
Sts. Matthew and Luke seem to indicate that the crucifixion occurred at the sixth hour (i.e. noon), since it is from the noon till three that darkness covered the land. Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over the whole earth, until the ninth hour (Matthew 27:45). And St. Mark also states that the darkness began at the sixth hour as well (cf. Mark 14:33).
St. John, on the other hand, seems to state that it was the sixth hour (i.e. noon) when Jesus first took up the Cross. And it was the parasceve of the pasch, about the sixth hour, and he [i.e. Pilate] saith to the Jews: Behold your king. But they cried out: Away with him; away with him; crucify him. […] Then therefore he delivered him to them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him forth (John 19:14-16)
We must recognize that the hours of the day were generally divided by the Jews into multi-hour blocks: The “third hour” extended from 9am to noon, the “sixth hour” from noon till 3pm, and the “ninth” from 3pm till 6pm.
Now, when St. Mark states that they crucified him at the third hour, we may understand him to mean that it was at the end of the third hour which would be just a little before noon. Otherwise, we can also see that it was during the third hour (a bit after 9am) that they crucified him in their hearts by demanding his death.
Likewise, when St. John states that it was about the sixth hour when they demanded our Lord’s crucifixion, we may see that this does not mean right at noon, but indicates that it was a bit before noon (before the beginning of the sixth hour). Thus, we may well conclude that Jesus was condemned to crucifixion around 10am and was then led forth along the way of the Cross.
St. Augustine explains this well (De Consensu Evang. III): “It was about the sixth hour when the Lord was delivered up by Pilate to be crucified,” as St. John states. For it “was not quite the sixth hour, but about the sixth – that is, it was after the fifth, and when part of the sixth had been entered upon until the sixth hour was ended – that the darkness began, when Christ hung upon the cross. It is understood to have been the third hour when the Jews clamored for the Lord to be crucified: and it is most clearly shown that they crucified Him when they clamored out. Therefore, lest anyone might divert the thought of so great a crime from the Jews to the soldiers, he says: It was the third hour, and they crucified Him, that they before all may be found to have crucified Him, who at the third hour clamored for His crucifixion.”
Just before 6am: Without any seeing or knowing, our Lord rises from the dead.
6am: The women come to the tomb and, seeing an angel roll back the stone, realize that our Lord had risen and come forth from the sealed tomb during that most blessed night.