Established in 1893
  • June 23, 2018

What Is a Tenebrae Service?

If you see only the happy ending of a movie, everyone else who saw the whole thing is elated but you go away saying, “So what? So they were all hugging each other. Big deal!” But if you watched the whole thing with all the suspense and grief involved in getting to the happy ending, you understand what the characters had to overcome. It makes the happy ending even happier. So it is with Easter. Attending the Easter service without attending the Holy Week services is like watching the happy ending of a movie without seeing the beginning and middle—you rob yourself of joy.
The word Tenebrae is Latin for shadows. The purpose of the Tenebrae service is to recreate the emotional aspects of the passion story—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 one.
The core of the service is like this: It starts 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 the first part of Psalm 22 is read which Jesus quoted on the cross. Then the Christ candle is extinguished, leaving the people in near total darkness—and near total devastation. At this point, the service ends. There is no blessing or dismissal, and the congregation leaves in silence.
The purpose of the service is to recreate the betrayal, agony, and abandonment of the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, and the service is left unfinished because the story isn’t over until Easter Day.

© the Rev. Ken Collins, used with permission

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