Tenebrae, Tenebrae, wherefore art thou Tenebrae?

I have been trying to find a Tenebrae service to attend this Holy Week but to no avail. Most churches do not have them and those that do seem to hold them just before or just after I can get near to them (grrrrr).

Tenebrae (Latin for 'shadows') is a service going back to the Mediaeval period. It originally took place very early in the mornings over Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (it was moved to the evenings of the previous days - Wed-Fri - by about 15th C).

During the service there are set readings from the Psalms (9 Psalms per day), Lamentations (3 readings per day), Augustine's commentary on the Psalms (3 readings per day) and the NT (3 readings per day).

After each of the 9 Psalm readings a candle is extinguished (Tenebrae was traditionally followed by Lauds during which a further 5 candles were extinguished). By the end of the service a single candle is left to illuminate the building. This candle is then taken and placed in a side chapel until it is brought back on Easter Sunday ... and light comes back into the world.

The whole service has the feel of a funeral as the events of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Golgotha and the burial of Christ are recalled (often indirectly via OT texts).

During the Renaissance the Lamentations readings were set to music and one can find a vast range of beautiful and haunting vocal renditions of the text of Lamentations (check out Spotify now if you'd like to hear one. I even found a modern setting in English on an album called "The American Spirit").

There is a lot that I appreciate about this service. Two things deserve mention now:

1. I appreciate the suggestive and unexpected juxtaposition of certain biblical texts reframed within a Christian liturgical setting. The connections made by placing these texts side by side opens up new vistas for interpretation. I could wax lyrical about this for a long time - especially on how Lamentations is opened up for reappropriation (so I won't).

2. I appreciate the space created for darkness (metaphorical and literal) in the liturgical calendar. Being a charismatic we 'walk in the light' all day every day so we never get to see darkness (a touch of light sarcasm there [plus a bad pun in this little note]). For this reason I perhaps welcome such worshipful spaces more then other who possibly take them for granted.

The tradition made space for the darkness but, by locating it within the narrative framework of Holy Week, does not allow it the last word. It is given space to breath and to be itself - there is no premature collapsing of sorrow into happiness - but in the end sorrow lasts for a night but joy comes in the morning. The grave has its victories but they are never God's last word. God's last word comes on Sunday.


Anonymous said…
Similarly, I am looking for a post-dusk or midnight Easter vigil to no avail...
Anonymous said…
For some reason I really love the word! I first learnt what it meant, oddly enough, in French lessons (ténèbre) rather than through church!

I remember chatting with you about the significance of Easter Saturday too at the Perry's of the 'in-between-ness' of that day and how that can shape Christian spirituality also. Is there anything bubbling away on that, that you might be persuaded to share?
Terry Wright said…
I'm happy for you to wax lyrical about Lamentations, Robin. Extracts from Lam 1 are used in the Passiontide Morning Prayer (Common Worship: Daily Prayer), and some of the imagery is very potent.
Jason Clark said…
We had one yesterday, it was very moving, ending in darkness. It left me looking for Easter sunday and the light of the resurrection.
simon said…
we had a wonderful tenebrae on Maundy Thursday at our church in Bromley.

We have one every year and people love the simplicity of it. We end in almost complete darkness and lerave the table in silence.

You'd be very welcome next year.
I do one most every Maundy Thursday, a tradition I picked up while an Army Chaplain. It is a moving/somber service.
Robin Parry said…
I am pleased that there are Tenebrae services going on around the place. Worcester had one last year but not this year. I was in Salisbury for Easter this year and they had one at the Cathedral but it was on Wednesday and I did not arrive until Thursday. Oh well.

Terry - I had not realised that Lamentations had got into Common Worship. That's good.
Robin Parry said…
Matt and Terry

Perhaps I will post on Lamentations but I am writing a book and a few articles on it so I don't wish to he boring by putting stuff here as well (mind you - who will read the printed stuff anyway? :-))


Popular Posts