Tenebrae - The Service Of Shadows
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
When I first joined the Anglican Church, I felt a bit like a schoolchild who showed up for a vocabulary test and hadn’t been privy to the study materials. As someone who had attended church her entire life and felt well-educated, there was an element of unexpected culture shock. Thankfully I was not being graded, and I had teachers not only willing but excited to help me learn these new terms. I began to understand the foreign traditions, their roots in both scripture and the traditions of the ancient church, and they enriched my faith in new ways.
One of these learning experiences was the service of Tenebrae, which I attended for the first time last year. The word “tenebrae” is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows,” and it describes the service well. A tradition established during medieval times, Tenebrae takes place during Holy Week, occurring on different days of the week depending on the Christian denomination. Holy Week is full of traditions that are sensory – the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday, partaking in remembrance of the last supper, the songs of joy on Easter Sunday. Tenebrae is a very visual service, gradually plunging the congregation into darkness as it progresses.
Tenebrae, at its core, is a funeral ceremony. A dark sanctuary is lit only by candles, and passages of scripture are read that address the suffering of Christ during the last days before his death. After each passage is read, a candle is put out. The candle holder is called a “hearse” – a triangular frame to convey death, not unlike the more recognizable definition of hearse. The candles are snuffed one by one, until a single candle remains. The pastor removes the candle and hides the light from it, so that the sanctuary is in total darkness. After several moments of darkness, a door is slammed, symbolizing the great earthquake that occurred at the resurrection of Christ. The last candle is returned to the altar of the church. The darkness has not prevailed.
The bible speaks at great length about light, darkness and shadows. As a modern Christian, I find it difficult to focus on the dark aspects of Holy Week. I know how the story ends, I know that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) But by ignoring the suffering of Christ, by glossing over his temptation and his suffering, by not mourning his tribulations, I found that I was missing out. Other than has humble birth, these passages of scripture are some of the best examples of the humanity of God. I may not have walked on water, but I have suffered pain. My priest, Rev. Sean Templeton, said it this way, “…we walk with Jesus through the shadows of anxiety and pain of Jesus' betrayal, isolation, and death. As the candles are extinguished we're plunged into the reality of death. But that is not the end. The reverse comes with the Easter Vigil as the hope and new life of Jesus shines forth.”
Tenebrae is an opportunity to mourn. I mourn not only the suffering of Christ, but that he needed to suffer on my behalf in order to provide a perfect redemption. I am grateful to have had this learning experience, and now cannot imagine a Holy Week without a Tenebrae service. My celebration of his miraculous resurrection can be richer by my participation in true mourning of his death.
Lakewood Anglican Church will be holding a Tenebrae Service at 7 p.m., Monday, March 30th at 14560 Madison Avenue in Lakewood. All are welcome to attend. For more information regarding Holy Week services at Lakewood Anglican, visit lakewoodanglican.com or email email@example.com.
Holly Shaheen is the Communications Coordinator for Lakewood Anglican Church. She lives in Lakewood with her husband, Seth.