Tenebrae is a Treasure Hidden in Shadow

The vanishing light in the church from the extinguished candles reminds us that we, as sinners, without Christ, “dwell in darkness.”

Grondelski-TENEBRAE.jpg (photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Tenebrae, or a Service of Shadows, was once part of the Church’s Divine Office during Holy Week. It is a service of psalms and readings, primarily from the Book of Lamentations. As the service progressed, the 15 candles on a special candelabrum (a “hearse”) would be progressively extinguished, until the last candle was removed from the sanctuary, leaving the church in darkness. The departure of the last candle was accompanied by a strepitus, a “great noise” that alluded to the earthquake when Jesus died, accomplished by the pounding of breviaries, hymnals, or stamping of feet.

Tenebrae gradually began disappearing after Pope Pius XII’s reform of the Paschal Triduum, because the reformed rubrics really did not accommodate Tenebrae as it had come to exist. (Tenebrae was supposed to be an anticipation of Lauds and Matins, but the revision of the Paschal Triduum restored Lauds and Matins to the morning and it’s hard to have a Service of Shadows in the morning. Later revision of the Liturgy of the Hours also further displaced Tenebrae.

Still, Tenebrae — at least in some adapted form — appears to be making a comeback.

My experience of a traditional Tenebrae service took place once, back on Wednesday of Holy Week 1978 at the Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan. In subsequent years, we did not repeat it, and the only place I found it was in old prayer books. In the mid-1980s, I was surprised to see an announcement in my local paper, announcing a Good Friday Tenebrae service at a black Baptist church in Perth Amboy. I went, but the service resembled nothing of what Catholic Tenebrae looked like.

In recent years, my current parish — St. James in Falls Church, Virginia — has adapted a modified Tenebrae service on the evening of Monday of Holy Week. My best description would be something like a Paschaltide “Service of Lessons and Carols” — the latter popular in northern Virginia — with readings from Scripture accompanied by music for late Lent and the gradual extinguishing of candles. The Dominican House of Studies in Washington is said to offer the traditional Tenebrae service, but I have yet to attend.

Catholic theology is sacramental — that is, sensible and sensual. Those elements come to the fore in the liturgies of the Paschal Triduum, most especially the Paschal Vigil: fire, candle wax, oil, water, night, the reading of the Old Testament “in the light of Christ,” i.e., amid dimmed lights in the church, etc.

Perhaps we need to restore Tenebrae.

Tenebrae is very sense-oriented: readings of Lamentations amidst increasing, enveloping darkness, the startling sound of the strepitus. As a Polish American Catholic, our ethnic tradition draws upon the tradition of Lamentations in the service of Gorzkie żale (“Bitter Lamentations”), a three part sung service dating from the 18th century and reflecting on Christ’s Passion. Gorzkie żale is still prayed in Poland and some Polish parishes in the United States. It has some kinship to Tenebrae in that its texts draw heavily on Lamentations-type themes.

In the current liturgical year, Palm Sunday features an introductory rite for blessing palms (with procession) and the reading of the Passion according to one of the Synoptics. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week have typical Masses but no special services: some parishes use these last days of Lent for confessions or penance services. (I would argue confession also has a place in the Paschal Triduum, but that’s a separate article). The Church’s primary liturgies are those of the Paschal Triduum: the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Service of the Passion on Good Friday, and the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday evening. The 1988 Circular Letter on “Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts” envisions possible other services in the period, e.g., Stations of the Cross on Good Friday evening, an Office of Readings “formerly called Tenebrae” (no. 40) on Good Friday or Holy Saturday morning, and confessions.

A morning Office of Readings on Good Friday or Holy Saturday loses the nocturnal element and sensibilities of the traditional Tenebrae service. I would, therefore, suggest, some adapted version of traditional Tenebrae earlier in Holy Week, most ideally on Wednesday of Holy Week (Spy Wednesday).

Various private adaptations of Tenebrae are publicly available. It would be a good thing for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy to take up a common, nocturnal service consistent with current liturgical norms that could be used voluntarily by parishes in the United States.

Tenebrae reinforces the Passiontide character of Holy Week. It reintroduces Catholics to the anticipation of the Passion already found in the Book of Lamentations, accompanied by the “sacramental/sensible” element. In one sense, it is a “bookend” to the Paschal Vigil that leads into Easter: just as the rising light in the church from the newly kindled Paschal candle illumines the faithful, so the vanishing light in the church from the extinguished candles reminds us that we, as sinners, without Christ, “dwell in darkness” (see John 12:35,46). Some of us would fault the reformed liturgy for imbalance, focusing on Resurrection and light without giving sufficient emphasis to the fact the path to Resurrection led through Calvary because of the darkness of sin. Perhaps a revised nighttime Tenebrae service would contribute to that equilibrium.

[In passing, one should not forget that the nocturnal Tenebrae service also contributed to the richness of ecclesiastical music which, because of the desuetude into which Tenebrae has fallen, has been waylaid.]

At the end of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom in Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples in they understood what he was trying to teach them, commending them to be “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52). Perhaps Tenebrae is one of those treasures.