Sometimes, the judicious use of low-tech dramatic elements – turning off lights, a chant, or a slammed door – make a religious service resonate deeply in those in attendance. Such is the case of Tenebrae, an ancient service that captures the despair of the death of Christ in a direct, moving manner.
Also known as the Service of Darkness, the name Tenebrae means darkness or shadows, and has for centuries referred to the early morning offices of Matins and Lauds of the last three days of Holy Week. Carefully woven together, the readings and psalms recreate the betrayal, abandonment, and agony of the events of the seizure and crucifixion of Christ as foreshadowed in the Old Testament and described in the New Testament. The story, however, is left unfinished and unresolved until Easter.
The service is noted by a gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until only a single candle, considered a symbol of Christ, remains. Toward the end of the services, this candle is hidden leaving the congregation in total darkness, reflecting the apparent victory of the forces of evil. But just as the weight of darkness and silence engulfs the cathedral, a strepitus (“loud noise”) breaks the stillness, symbolizing the earthquake at Christ’s resurrection, the hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light all depart in silence.
Trinity Cathedral has conducted the service for more than 20 years under the leadership of Canon Paul Cooper, who has done extensive research on the origins and variations of the service. Paul notes that “Tenebrae is one of the most dramatic services held at the Cathedral. It begins with the congregation ensconced in the Cathedral’s chancel with the entire Cathedral bathed in light keeping the darkness at bay. As the service progresses, lights and candles are extinguished so that the chancel appears to be an island surrounded by darkness. The readings themselves underscore the precariousness of our existence. Eventually, more candles are extinguished until only a single candle provides dim solace to the assembled. When the last candle is removed, you really feel alone and abandoned. And then, after a period of uneasy silence, that incredible, deafening noise echoes through the Cathedral. It is definitely frightening and awesome.” Paul continues, “Many people who attend Tenebrae tell us that it is one of their favorite services because it helps them mentally prepare for the rest of Holy Week and the Easter celebration.”
If you have not experienced Tenebrae at Trinity, why not join us this year? Wednesday, April 13, 2022 at 7:30 pm