Tenebrae: A Service of Shadows

Dear friends,

On Wednesday in Holy Week we observe the service of Tenebrae. It is no secret that this is among my most beloved services of the year. The loud Hosannas of Palm Sunday are past, and Good Friday approaches. We gather quietly in the dim light of a few lamps and candles (Tenebrae is the Latin word for “shadows”), while the men of the Grace Choir and Teen Choir sing Psalms to ancient Gregorian chant and we hear readings that summarize mankind’s deep need for salvation.

Rather than directly retell the Passion story, the readings and psalms provide an extended meditation upon the spiritual and emotional import of the final moments of Christ’s earthly life, guiding our hearts into a deeper experience of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

After each reading, candles are gradually extinguished one by one until only a single candle, considered a symbol of Christ, remains. Toward the end of the service this candle is hidden, signifying the apparent victory of the forces of darkness. At the very end a loud noise is made, symbolizing the earthquake at the time of the resurrection, the hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light all depart in silence. The service ends rather abruptly with no blessing or dismissal, since, of course, the story is not finished – not until we celebrate the Resurrection a few days later.

As you might imagine, Tenebrae can be a powerfully emotional experience. Most of our services throughout the year are uplifting celebrations, and Tenebrae stands in stark contrast. Choir members, adults and teens alike, have at times been brought to tears by the emotional force of the chant and readings.

I find that experiencing this darkness is important. I once read somewhere that celebrating Easter without observing Holy Week is like watching the triumphant end of a movie without seeing the middle. “Okay, a bunch of people are jumping up and down and hugging, so what?” Without an understanding of the characters and what they’ve gone through on their way to victory, you are unable to share their joy. I think I similar dynamic is true for our experience of Easter.

The key musical moment of Tenebrae comes near the end, when the choir sings the anthem Christus Factus Est, from Philippians 2:

“Though in the form of God, Christ Jesus did not cling to equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and was born in human likeness. Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and given him the name above every name.”

Tenebrae is our opportunity to dive head first into this ultimate and mysterious truth.