With Shadow and Mournful Chant, Tenebrae Services Evoke a Powerful Reflection on Christ’s Death

This ancient Holy Week service is a sung reflection on the death of Christ that employs darkness and noise.

A Tenebrae service takes place in 2019.
A Tenebrae service takes place in 2019. (photo: Flickr, 2.0 license / Courtesy of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph)
  • Tenebrae
  • What: Tenebrae is a liturgical service of sung readings and Psalms that features distinctive symbolic elements of Christ’s passion and death. 
  • Why Tenebrae?: Tenebrae means “shadows” or “darkness” in Latin. The service shows the darkness that comes over the earth upon Christ’s death. One of the chants of the service draws from Scripture that tenebrae factae sunt — “darkness fell” at the death of Christ (Matthew 27:45-46).
  • Elements: Candles are gradually extinguished, and a loud noise, called a “strepitus” at the service’s conclusion symbolizes the chaos following Christ’s death. 
  • According to Tradition: Historically, it was a portion of the Liturgy of the Hours prayers of Matins and Lauds for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Holy Week. Now, it is often an adaptation or shortened form of those prayers typically offered on Wednesday of Holy Week.
  • Holy Week Connection: Tenebrae is designed to serve as a powerful, reflective experience for the faithful ahead of the Easter Triduum. The representation of the darkness of sin and death serve to call the faithful to embrace the light of Christ, who has conquered death.

Those attending a Tenebrae service for the first time this Holy Week may be startled by entering a church shrouded in darkness except for the light of a few candles, the gradual extinguishing of those candles, and the loud banging noise called the “strepitus” that builds and echoes in the darkness at the service’s conclusion.

Held by some parishes and monasteries on Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, Tenebrae is not only rich in striking visual elements, but also features some of the most distinctively mournful music the Church has to offer with the chanting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the Psalms.

The Tenebrae service performed today is typically an adaptation or shortened form of the traditional service, dating back possibly to the fifth century, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. That service consisted of Matins and Lauds, prayers said in the middle of the night and early morning in the traditional Liturgy of the Hours on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Holy Week.

It is now an unofficial liturgical service after Pope Pius XII’s 1955 Holy Week reforms, which moved Tenebrae to the morning, replacing it with the Triduum services for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter vigil in the evenings. Subsequent changes to the Liturgy of the Hours further altered the form of Tenebrae.

Dominican Father Dominic Langevin, vice president and dean at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told the Register that Tenebrae is “done in some churches as a form of the liturgical preparation for the Triduum.” He explained that “it mimics the structure of the Divine Office, specifically the Office of Readings,” with “Psalms followed by readings from Scripture and from the Fathers of the Church.” 


Structure and Symbolism

Jennifer Donelson-Nowicka, associate professor and the director of sacred music at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, said that the Church has seen Tenebrae as “a funeral service, in some ways, for Christ,” providing a “spiritual picture” of the darkness after the death of Christ before the Resurrection. 

William Mahrt, associate professor of music at Stanford University and president of the Church Music Association of America, pointed out that the name Tenebrae means “shadows” or “darkness” in Latin and comes from a portion of the service that quotes Scripture: that “darkness came over the whole land” (Matthew 27:45) at Christ’s death. 

Traditionally, Donelson-Nowicka said, Tenebrae consisted of three nocturns: the first focused on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the second St. Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms, and the third focused on the Epistles of St. Paul. These readings are followed by responsories set to music by “some of the greatest composers of the Church,” she said, “because the text is so striking.”

The composers of this music include Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, and English composer Thomas Tallis. She noted that Tenebrae responsories have also been composed in more recent years, including by Scottish composer James MacMillan.

James Griffin, executive director of the Durandus Institute for Sacred Liturgy and Music in Philadelphia, also highlighted the “huge body of sacred music that was composed for Tenebrae,” saying that some of the chants for the Lamentations are “considered the saddest or the most melancholic sounding chants in the whole body of Western sacred music.” 

He pointed out that the setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere Mei Deus by Gregorio Allegri, composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII for the Sistine Chapel’s exclusive use, was for Tenebrae, as, traditionally, the service would close with this Psalm. Nowadays, “even people who don’t really know anything about polyphonic Renaissance music” have probably heard Allegri’s setting of that Psalm in a movie. The striking piece of choral music has been featured in the movie Chariots of Fire; and according to some accounts, it was transcribed by a 14-year-old Mozart after he heard it when visiting the Vatican.


Visual Elements

In terms of the visual elements of Tenebrae, Nowicka noted the service’s use of the “Tenebrae hearse” — a triangle candle holder traditionally holding 15 candles, which are extinguished after each Psalm, except for one candle representing Christ, which is hidden away but not extinguished. 

The Liturgical Year, written in 1841 by Dom Prosper Louis Pascal Guéranger, a French Benedictine priest and abbot of Solesmes, states that, in Tenebrae, the “desertion on the part of His Apostles and Disciples is expressed by the candles being extinguished, one after the other.” Dom Guéranger wrote that the great noise at the end of the service expresses “the convulsions of nature, when Jesus expired on the Cross; — the earth shook, the rocks were split, the dead came forth from their tombs.”

The strepitus at the end of the service, Nowicka said, “could have had a very practical origin” in the commotion of attempting to exit a darkened church, but for Christians, “all of our actions, all of our words have meaning,” and so this noise could have taken on “a spiritual import” symbolizing “the earthquake at the death of Christ.” Some also say the noise symbolizes the rolling of the stone over the tomb of Christ.

She sees value in the experience of darkness in Tenebrae, which “has a corollary to spiritual darkness.” She said that in the ritualized darkness of Tenebrae, “we experience with the Church and celebrate with the Church an experience of what the lack of the light of Christ means.” 

Mahrt said that the gradual extinguishing of the candles, the hiding away of the candle representing Christ, and the strepitus “symbolizes the death of Christ” and the “chaos” that ensues, but the chaos is “given the hope of the Resurrection, with the candle coming back.” He called those aspects of Tenebrae “a great physical manifestation of a spiritual reality.”

He said Tenebrae is a valuable experience for the layperson because there is always benefit in “participating in the Church’s formal prayer” of the Liturgy of the Hours, and it is “one of the most compelling services to hear” because of the link “between the prayer of the Church and the impressive symbolism of the death of Christ.” 


An Examination of Conscience

Regarding the symbolism of the candles in Tenebrae, Father Langevin said that the candles being “gradually extinguished one by one was interpreted in medieval times as the apostles abandoning Christ”; and the service is “reflecting the shadows of sin, which occur by the apostles and our abandoning of Christ in the shadow of the night.”  

He said the service points to “our need for God’s light to break through that darkness.” It’s also a reflection on our sins, he added, pointing out that in the readings from the Lamentations in the service, “the people are being punished, but they’re being punished, Jeremiah says, because of their sins.” 

Father Langevin said that because of the service’s reflection on sin and the symbolism of the darkness referring to the apostles’ and our abandonment of Christ, Tenebrae “can be a good examination of conscience” ahead of the Triduum services. 

He also noted that, nowadays, most people attend Tenebrae on Spy Wednesday, which gets its name from the need of Judas and his collaborators “to spy on Jesus to find a time to hand him over to the Jewish leaders.” He called Wednesday of Holy Week “a haunting day because of the betrayal of Jesus and because of Judas’ sins and each one of our sins.”

The Dominican House of Studies has planned its annual Tenebrae service for 7:30pm on Spy Wednesday, April 5, this year drawing on their Dominican tradition by singing some of the Lamentations of Jeremiah in Latin, according to the medieval Dominican chants. 


Renewed Interest in Tenebrae

Father Langevin said that as the liturgical tradition of Tenebrae is found for the first time by younger generations and rediscovered by older generations, he thinks there will be “more people who are using this liturgical experience as an aid to their spiritual lives.” 

Griffin’s Durandus Institute provides resources to those looking to learn more about the Church’s unique liturgical traditions like Tenebrae. He says it has been “increasingly common” for him to hear from those looking to have a Tenebrae service at their parish or who are interested in the Liturgy of the Hours, saying there is a “growing interest” in these ancient services and prayers especially “among young adult Catholics.” 

For these Catholics, the historic service provides a powerful experience ahead of Triduum as a “vigil for the passion and death of the Lord.” Griffin noted that at the conclusion of Tenebrae, the faithful leave the church “in silence” and “reflect on what Our Lord has endured for us.”

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