Saturday, March 22, 2008

tenebrae service

What is a tenebrae service?

"The word ‘tenebrae’ is Latin for shadows. The purpose of the Tenebrae service is to recreate the emotional aspects of the passion story, so this is not supposed to be a happy service, because the occasion is not happy. If your expectation of Christian worship is that it should always be happy and exhilarating, you won’t appreciate this service until the second time you attend it.

The service was originally designed for Good Friday, but it can be used for Maundy Thursday as well. Both services have long scripture narratives, which for this service are divided into seven, eight, or nine parts, each one assigned to a different reader.

The service may include other parts, such as solemn hymns, a sermon, and Communion, but the core of the Tenebrae service works like this: It starts out with the church in candlelight. There are as many candles as there are readings, plus a white Christ candle. The readers go up one at a time, read their assigned selections, and extinguish one of the candles, until only the Christ candle remains. Then someone reads the first part of Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross. Then the Christ candle is put out, leaving the congregation in near total darkness—and near total devastation. At this point, the service ends. There is no benediction and the people leave in silence. (The lights are turned up but remain dim so that people can see their way out.)

The purpose of the service is to recreate the betrayal, abandonment, and agony of the events, and it is left unfinished, because the story isn’t over until Easter Day."

We practice His presence noisily because the din is a comfort to our awkward selves. Nesting within our own skins, our stark souls crouch, warped and bent by the weight of life and all its sundry griefs. To counter this, we clamor for happy voices and worship choruses; they nurse our wounds. They spell us from the cheap cloth which cloaks our nakedness.

Last evening, we had none of it.

We dressed in dark, sombre clothes. As a member of the cobbled-together choir, I had the added accessory of a black music folder. I clutched it to my chest firmly, possessively, like I would a favorite doll.

As the scriptures were intoned, the candles, one by one, were extinguished. Darkness fell piecemeal, incrementally. Like dusty organ pipes, our throats opened to the dark air and spilled out the old hymns, line upon line. The comfort of familiar faces, my friendly congregation, was now sunk in caverns of burnt umber.

O Sacred Head now wounded.

When the one candle was borne and we filed behind its wee light, a voice rose over the blackness. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

I was,
nudged my soul.
I was there in all my badness, all my selfishness and all my depleted tries at goodness.
By the power and breadth of His eternal Mind, He thought of me there, while pain wracked His earthly tent.

He cried, It is finished.
And it was done for all time.

Thank you for the cross, my Friend.


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