Parishes embrace Tenebrae

Moving service highlights the darkness present before Easter

By Emily Booker

Slow. Quiet. Dark.

It can be difficult to step away from the busyness and noise of the world and to truly enter into a space that offers a stillness in order to draw you closer to God.

If you are looking for a way to more deeply reflect on Christ’s Passion and death during Holy Week, you may consider attending a Tenebrae service, which has been gaining more popularity at some parishes in the Diocese of Knoxville in recent years.

Tenebrae, which means “darkness” in Latin, is traditionally held during the Triduum, the three days preceding Easter.

Deacon Gordon Lowery has been leading the English Tenebrae service at Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville for several years. Holy Ghost has offered the Tenebrae service in both English and traditional Latin forms during Holy Week.

Deacon Lowery explained that Tenebrae was originally a way for the laity to share in praying the Liturgy of the Hours during the holiest time of the year.

“Down the ages it’s changed a lot,” he explained. “Back in the medieval times the Liturgy of the Hours was just for the clergy. This was a form of the Liturgy of the Hours prayed by the laity during Holy Week.”

Since Vatican II, the Tenebrae service is not celebrated as regularly. Now, parish Tenebrae services each vary slightly but follow the similar themes and the same focus on entering into the darkness with Christ.

The cantors or congregation is divided into two choirs that alternate the chanting or reading of Scripture.

“We chant from the lamentations of Jeremiah the prophet,” Deacon Lowery said. “We’re lamenting what is going on with Jesus, His beating and whipping and scourging, the crown of thorns, the spitting on Him. That’s what the lamentations are all about.”

Each lamentation or psalm is followed by a prayer, and then a candle is extinguished, slowly leaving the church in darkness.

“You go through this process of reading and meditating and extinguishing a candle. And the candles are usually the only light that’s there, so that by the time you’re done, you’re in darkness,” said Deacon Tim Elliott, who has been leading the Tenebrae service at All Saints Church in Knoxville since around 2011.

“That suits the church because the church is dark after Holy Thursday Mass. They strip the altar, and everything is dark.”

All Saints Church holds its Tenebrae service on the night of Holy Thursday to reflect waiting in the garden with Jesus and preparing for Good Friday.

“It’s kind of nice, because it adds to the movement of the Triduum as there is no dismissal on Thursday or Friday—it’s like one long Mass—and this is like the movement from the first section to the next section into Good Friday,” Deacon Elliott explained. “And it’s scriptural in the fact that it is the time that Jesus was in Gethsemane and betrayed. So, from that aspect, I think it’s a pretty good tie-in between Holy Thursday and Good Friday.”

“It can be emotional for people. As the lights go out, they get that connection of Jesus being betrayed by the Apostles, being betrayed by Judas. The readings are somewhat emotional as well. I encourage people to not just come at the very end but to spend that time in the garden,” he added.

St. Mary Church in Johnson City holds its Tenebrae service on the night of Good Friday to reflect on Christ in the tomb and the darkness over the earth.

“Tenebrae is about darkness and is the meaning of the word. It leads an individual toward the darkness that comes with the death of Christ. From this darkness comes the light of Christ’s resurrection,” said Father Dustin Collins, pastor of St. Mary.

The Tenebrae service at St. Mary concludes with the strepitus, or “great noise.” This signifies the earthquake following Christ’s death.

Participants of the service create the rumbling noise by banging on pews, stomping feet, or using a crotalus—a wooden instrument just for making a loud, clapping noise in place of bells during the Triduum.

The last candle extinguished at the Tenebrae service at Holy Ghost is the paschal candle, the large candle first lit at the Easter Vigil the year before.

“I pick that up and carry it out of the sanctuary back to where nobody can see it, and it signifies the crucifixion of Jesus and the Light of the World passing from the world. Then the whole sanctuary is in total darkness,” Deacon Lowery said.

After the strepitus and a few moments of dark silence, the paschal candle is brought back in, a reminder that death is not the victor; the resurrection is coming.

Deacon Lowery said that he finds the Tenebrae service to be a good way to reflect on the suffering of Christ.

He noted that some Christians sometimes “skip over, or don’t really contemplate on the sufferings of what Jesus went through for us, the love that He went through it with.”

Taking the time to walk with Him during Holy Week, either via Stations of the Cross or Tenebrae or other time in spent in prayer can draw you closer to that sacrifice.

“It’s spiritual. It gets you into what Jesus suffered,” Deacon Lowery said. “When that last light is carried out and you’re in total darkness, it’s kind of like, this is what sin is: total darkness. And then the light comes back in anticipating the resurrection, the Light of the World. … It gets you in touch with your own spirituality and gets you ready for the resurrection.”

Deacon Elliott encouraged people to try out a Tenebrae service if one is available near them.

“I think that if people experience it once or twice they get hooked on it,” he said.

By taking the time to pause, reflect, and pray during a service like Tenebrae during Holy Week, one can truly appreciate the miracle and joy of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

Tenebrae is reversed at the Easter Vigil, when light is slowly added into the church, from the sole light of the paschal candle at the processional to the full illumination of the church at the reading of the Gospel. The people who have experienced the depths of Christ’s suffering and death now get to celebrate the joyous heights of His glorious resurrection.

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