Friday, April 22, 2011

Tenebrae: the Service of Shadows

The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to worship services that have lots of liturgical or symbolic elements (it might also be because I've spent the past seven years studying monasticism at a Catholic school). So when the opportunity arose Wednesday night to attend a traditional tenebrae service at a local Episcopal church, I took it.

Tenebrae is Latin for "shadows," and a tenebrae service is a visual and auditory reflection on the events of Good Friday (Tenebrae services used to be held on Good Friday, but because the Catholic Church does not allow Mass to be said on this day, most Catholic churches hold their tenebrae services on Maundy Thursday instead--even though a tenebrae is not a Mass. I don't know if a similar protocol exists in the Episcopal Church, nor do I know why this particular congregation chose to hold theirs on Wednesday.). At the start of the service, all of the candles on the altar and the hearse (the triangular-shaped candelabrum--I had to look this term up when I got home) are lit, and the rest of the sanctuary is partially lit. As the service progresses through a series of readings and choral responses, the candles and lights are gradually extinguished, symbolizing the growing darkness of sin in the world and the midday darkness that "covered the land" for three hours leading up to Christ's death (cf. Mark 15:33).

The readings for the service consisted of the first 14 verses of the book of Lamentations and several Psalms of lament and judgment. Following each cycle of readings, the cantor responded with "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God." As the lights got dimmer and dimmer, the Psalmist's despair grew increasingly evident. I found the reading of Psalm 77 to be particularly evocative. In the middle of this psalm, we read: "Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? Has His steadfast love forever ceased? Are His promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His compassion (vv. 7-9; ESV)?" It was easy to imagine what Jesus' followers might have been thinking as they watched the events of the crucifixion unfold: "We thought this was the real deal. What happens now?"

When all the lights have been turned off and all the candles except for the "Christ candle" at the center of the hearse have been extinguished, there is a final reading, and the acolytes remove the Christ candle from the stand and hide it from view, symbolizing the moment of Jesus' death. In total darkness, the congregation recites the Lord's prayer and the cantor reads Psalm 51, the lament on the Psalmist's personal sin that has so often been set to music. After a final prayer, the acolytes drop or slam shut a heavy book or make some other "great noise" that represents the earthquake mentioned in Matthew 27:51 (I have no idea what produced the noise at the service I attended; even though I knew it was coming, it was still loud and sudden enough to startle me) and then return the Christ candle--still lit--to the hearse so that the congregation has just enough light to leave the sanctuary in silence.

A tenebrae service isn't all gloom and doom, however. The psalms that are read are psalms of judgment and lament, but they all--even Psalm 77--end on a note of hope and faith that God will keep His promises to redeem and restore. Moreover, the final reading before the church is plunged into total darkness is the Song of Zechariah from Luke 1, which ends with the line " give light unto those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace (Lk 1:79)." And the Christ candle's return to the stand at the end of the service is a reminder to all that the Light of the World could not be extinguished forever--Easter morning is coming.

I'm glad I finally got a chance to experience a tenebrae service, even if it wasn't actually on Good Friday. I could wish that the church had provided copies of the lyrics of some of the hymns that the choir song, since they were all in Latin and although I read the language, I don't have a very good ear for discerning words in songs (even in English). But the symbolism was every bit as rich as I had expected. I'd like to attend an Easter vigil service someday, too, but that one's going to be tricky since we have so many responsibilities at our own church on Easter Sunday and need to be reasonably awake and alert.

Have a blessed Easter, everyone.

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