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What is Tenebrae?

April 8, 2009 in Catholic, Lent, liturgy, Protestant | Tags: Catholic, Holy Week, Lent, liturgy, Protestant, Tenebrae

In order for as many people as possible to attend Holy Week services in ancient times, the principal services of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday were celebrated in the morning.  Therefore, the morning services of Matins and Lauds were celebrated the evening before each of these.

These services are known as Tenebrae, which is Latin for ‘darkness’.  A candelabra of 15 candles (pictured) is used.  This is called a Tenebrae hearse.  Each of the candles is extinguished during the service, which consists of the Lamentations of Jeremias, which are chanted.  Following these are the Commentaries of St Augustine upon the Psalms and selected lessons from the Epistles of St Paul.  The service nears an end with the Benedictus from Lauds, at which point only the uppermost candle of the hearse remains lit.  This candle symbolises Jesus Christ.     

With this candle still lit, the celebrant takes the hearse and places it behind the altar whilst the closing prayers of the Miserere and Collect are said. The church or chapel is in total darkness during this time. A loud noise is made after the closing prayers, perhaps a banging of a prayer book or stomping on the floor.  This denotes the convulsion of Nature upon the death of Christ. The hearse is returned to its place near the altar with the single candle lit;  this symbolises the Resurrection. Tenebrae is now over, and the congregation leaves in silence. 

This describes the service as it is held in Catholic and Anglican traditions.  Generally, Anglicans have only a Wednesday night Tenebrae, because they have special Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services.

Other Protestant denominations also have Tenebrae services, although these may differ from the those of the Anglo-Catholic traditions.  They may include Gospel readings about Jesus’ final days, from Maundy Thursday to the Crucifixion.  Jesus’ seven last sayings, or ‘words’, may also form part of the service.  There might be a Communion service, where, at the end, altar cloths may be removed from the altar and statuary or iconography covered.  Whereas hymns might be sung to an organ or choir accompaniment at the start of the service, towards the end, worship and sound reduce such that the congregation leaves in silence.

Church of St. Mary and All Saints

The Car Dyke Group of Parishes)