Tenebrae

On Wednesday evening, after a year’s hiatus, we again celebrated Tenebrae at St. James. It is a service derived from traditional services of matins and lauds during the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday), and was set for Wednesday in Holy Week in order to keep the focus from Thursday to Saturday on the central services of those days.

As such, it seems somewhat incongruous. The primary action of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles, so that at the end, there is only a single candle burning, the Christ candle. The service ends with a loud noise, signifying thunder or earthquake. Tenebrae seems to point towards the death and burial of Jesus, even though in the ritual time of the week, those events lie in the future.

While some of the service seems problematic, the psalms and readings are a powerful reminder of human suffering. Psalm 74 with its graphic description of the destruction of the temple, and the readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, bring to mind the suffering of the exiles in the sixth century BCE. The destruction of the Temple, and the Exile were indeed traumatic events that became an occasion for deep reflection on God and on faith in God.

When early Christians sought to interpret their own experience of suffering, it was natural that they would turn to their primary liturgical text—the Psalter, and reinterpret the Psalms to fit their own experience. Perhaps the most profound example of that is Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the Psalm that is chanted during the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday, and again during the Good Friday liturgy.

Tenebrae is scary. It is psychologically disturbing, and occasionally seems manipulative. But chanting those Psalms and hearing the readings is also an opportunity to confront one’s deepest fears and deepest pain, and connect it with Christ’s suffering on the cross.

If you’ve never attended a Tenebrae service, there are online versions. Here’s one from the BBC.

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