It is the great peculiarity of the Church of Rome, that it presents to its worshipers an extraordinary variety of services, each of which has a special significance and fitness for the period of the year in which it is celebrated. Among the most beautiful of these offices are those which are celebrated during Holy Week, and which are called Tenebrae.
The notice above entitled “Tenebrae Services in the Roman Catholic Church” and published in the New York Times, on March 27th, 1872, sounds a little antiquated (when was the last time anybody said “Church of Rome?”), but it none the less rings true for me. Though it might be an odd choice, Tenebrae has long been my favorite service of the liturgical calendar. On the whole, I’m a liturgical progressive; I’ve never once longed for a return to the pre-Vatican II days when the congregation could only hope to get a good view of the priest’s back during services. But somehow I’ve fallen in love with a service that feels like a relic from an earlier, more austere time.
Tenebrae is literally set in darkness, at the height of the gloom preceding the Easter Vigil. It has not been popular in decades, and it would be misleading to call it a “best-kept secret” of the Catholic Church—it’s celebrated by some mainline Anglican and Lutheran communities as well. Further, such an assertion would require more Catholics to be in on the secret, which they aren’t. Most followers of the “Church of Rome” have never even heard of Tenebrae.
I wish they would discover it. Tenebrae perfectly fits the Lenten season, when spring struggles outside to wrest the climate from winter, and inside, we hear readings about the Israelites in peril and Christ in extremis. We speak throughout the year of “felix culpa”—that “happy fault” of ours and Adam’s that brought about the Resurrection. But from Ash Wednesday up to the Easter Vigil, the happiness of that fault is purposefully obscured. “Alleluia” is banished. And if Lent is our Church’s season of discontent, beautiful Tenebrae is its grandest liturgical expression. Its very name (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) evokes the heavy ache of Christ’s passion.
Tenebrae originated centuries ago as a late-evening combination of the Divine Offices of Matins and Lauds, which are now the modern, less elegant-sounding Office of Readings and Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. In Tenebrae’s traditional, pre-Vatican II form, all of the lights in the church are dimmed, save for a triangular candlestick on the altar with fifteen lit candles. What takes place is not a Mass, but rather an extended, prayerful interaction between clergy, choir and congregation—in some ways similar to evening Vespers, for those familiar with that service. The celebrant leads in a series of readings, mostly consisting of passages from the Book of Lamentations and from psalms of lament like Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”). The plainsong motets of the choir suffuse the air with mystery.
Gradually, every candle but one is extinguished—plunging the church into near pitch-blackness. The whole thing feels like a funeral (they even call the pointed candlestick the “Tenebrae hearse”), and the darkness drapes the church like a pall. At the close of the readings, following the singing of the Benedictus—Zachary’s prayer from Luke 1:68-79, which always concluded Lauds—the assembly creates a loud, jarring sound by pounding the pews or stomping. Called the strepitus (Latin for “great noise”), this clamor symbolically represents the earthquake that followed Christ’s death; it also indicates that the service has ended. The priest carries the last lit candle away from the altar, and the congregation exits in silence.
For Catholics, good liturgy has always aimed to engage the body and its senses. We kneel, sit and stand throughout the Mass, and cross our brows, mouths and hearts before the proclamation of the Gospel. We taste the body and blood of Christ and inhale the perfume of incense. On special occasions, we rub our palm branches between our fingers, or smudge the ashes on our forehead. We listen, and we watch.
Our tactile impulses certainly enhance the appeal of hammering away on the nearest pew at the conclusion of Tenebrae. But the service’s chief sensory aim is to deprive us of our vision, in a startling way that feels fresh, and forces us to shed our sometimes-rote relationship to the Mass. By the end of the service, all that remains is a church full of shadows—the sheer absence we experience during Lent is made real and sacramental.
After centuries of accumulating dust, the Church decided during Vatican II to tidy up and let some light into the room, so to speak. That thinking was certainly understandable, but it didn’t bode well for grim, melancholy Tenebrae, however deliciously fitting that melancholy might suit Holy Week. Some churches re-packaged the service in sunnier, post-conciliar terms; many discontinued it altogether.
But anyone willing to look hard enough can still find a Tenebrae service that’s as dark and sorrowful as it’s intended to be. Many diocesan cathedrals have held out, and keep Tenebrae alive. There are some small variations from church to church. A few celebrate the service on all three days prior to the Easter Vigil. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, on the other hand, Tenebrae takes place on Good Friday, in the morning hours. And at the University of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart (where I first encountered the service as an undergraduate), they celebrate Tenebrae at night on Holy Thursday—just right, I think, because the darkness is almost total, and the service poetically shepherds the community into Good Friday.
In this year, especially, when Easter comes early and nearly all of Lent unfolds in the cold grey of winter, the nearly forgotten ritual of Tenebrae feels all the more fitting. It blunts none of the mourning these forty days demand of us. And yet it ushers us forward with something to hold onto. In the midst of the concluding darkness, the celebrant departs with one tiny candle—a single glimmer of hope that will carry us through till Easter.