The great liturgical drama of Holy Week extends from Palm Sunday, when the Passion is read, to Easter Sunday, when the joyful Alleluias proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus. In the midst of these dramatic ceremonies, a quiet service called Tenebrae invites the faithful to pray in the serenity of increasing darkness, until the church is completely without light. The term “Tenebrae” is the Latin word for “darkness,” and it anticipates the darkness that covered the earth when Jesus suffered death on a cross.
A Tenebrae service will take place at 7:30 p.m. on March 23, the Wednesday of Holy Week, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Spring St., in Fall River. This observance at St. Mary’s Cathedral has become the occasion for ecumenical prayer among Christians of various traditions and denominations. A member of the clergy from a faith tradition other than Catholic is invited to offer the homily. It is a moment in Holy Week when Christians lose track of their separations and join in a unified observance of the beliefs they hold in common. All persons of faith are invited to take part in this hour of prayer.
Tenebrae originated many centuries ago with the monastic prayer said after midnight on the last three days of Holy Week. That tradition has been modified in recent times so that the laity can take part in the mid-week recitation of psalms designated as “nocturns,” referring to the original three night-time services of Tenebrae. In the abbreviated form in use nowadays, the sanctuary of the church is illuminated by a “hearse,” the term used for a large structure like a candelabra which holds fifteen candles (seven pairs and a single candle at the apex). As the psalms are recited and the Lamentation of Jeremiah is chanted, the candles are gradually extinguished and the refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God,” is sung repeatedly. After the seventh pair of candles is put out, the last candle is removed to a hidden place and the choir chants the “Christus” (Philippians 2:8) – “Christ became obedient for us even to death, dying on the cross. Because of this God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”
In the most dramatic moment of the service, the chant is followed by loud noises, made by the choir and congregation banging on books or pews, to represent the earth quaking at the time of Christ’s death and the sound of the stone closing his tomb. Shortly after that the one candle that had been removed is returned to the sanctuary as a sign of the Resurrection. The service then ends in silence.
Tenebrae is a quietly prayerful moment in a week of momentous liturgies observing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Passion and Death of Jesus, and finally the Resurrection. In this beautifully reverent service of the nocturns and candles and hymns, the texts bring together the Old and New Testaments in a recognition of the sweep of salvation history.