Tenebrae: A Church Service in Candlelight

Posted by Millennium Candles on 3/30/2015


Christians around the world are getting busy for the last week of Lent, the Holy Week. This is a time to reflect the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and for some religious denominations, it is also a time of abstinence as a form of cleansing. While the general mood of the Holy Week is one of penitent reflection, there is nonetheless pageantry to dramatize and commemorate what the Savior had to go through to redeem the children of God from sins.

There is the pageantry of the crucifixion and the resurrection, and there is also the solemn commemoration of the events leading up to the death of Christ on the cross. 

Although not a universal practice among religious denominations, the tenebrae sets the mood for Good Friday. Derived from the Latin word of the same name that means shadows, the tenebrae is essentially a somber church service in candlelight. It is meant to provide the solemn backstory to the exultation that takes place on Easter Sunday.

The tenebrae has traditionally been celebrated on Good Friday, the day when Jesus was crucified and died on the cross. As of late, it has been celebrated on Maundy Thursday. Unlike the traditional service which ends in joy, the tenebrae starts and ends as a solemn reflection of the events leading up to the crucifixion.

The service consists of scriptural narratives divided into seven, eight or nine parts, with each part assigned to a reader. Central to the celebration is the use of candles that correspond to each of these narratives. During this service, the church lights are switched off and only the vigil candles light the church. This is to symbolize the darkness into which the church fell when its highest priest was betrayed by His own disciple and crucified alongside criminals. 

The very core of the tenebrae is the reading of the scriptural narratives in this grave atmosphere. After each of the narrative is read, the reader extinguishes a candle until only the Christ candle remains.  Finally, after the first part of Psalm 22 (which Jesus uttered on the cross) is read, the Christ candle is extinguished, leaving the church in near total darkness and silence. There is often a loud pounding sound to signify the end of the service although it can feel like the narratives are unfinished. The church lights are turned up afterwards but dimmed to light the path of the congregants on their way out.

The tenebrae can leave the uninitiated feeling awful. That, however, is the whole reason why the service is held: to set the mood for a serious reflection of the events that are central to redemption. 

The narratives are intentionally left unfinished during the tenebrae because the story is not finished until Easter Sunday. Those who have not attended the tenebrae only sees the happy ending to a story otherwise full of sorrow and agony. For those who have done so and understood its significance, Easter Sunday becomes all the more joyous and meaningful.

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