Background to Tenebrae

The service of Tenebrae, meaning “darkness” or “shadows,” has been practiced by the church since medieval times. It is a service that can be seen as an introduction to the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday). In a candle-lit sanctuary Christ’s suffering is commemorated through Scripture and song. Candles are extinguished one by one as the congregation listens to the account of Christ’s suffering and death.

Originally Tenebrae was held in the monasteries on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week. A 3 day service! It was part of the matins and lauds (daily Scripture-reading and prayer services) which began at two o’clock in the morning. Later, to allow town folk to participate in these services, the monasteries scheduled the Tenebrae during the afternoon or evening before each of these holy days.

Thursday’s Tenebrae centered on the Last Supper and the betrayal; Friday’s on Christ’s judgment, crucifixion, and death; and Saturday’s on his burial and the hope of his resurrection. During these services fifteen candles (fourteen dark-colored and one white) were arranged on a triangular candelabra. Fourteen psalms were read during the matins and lauds, each followed by a choir response. After each reading one candle was extinguished until only the white candle, often called the Christ candle, remained burning. The Christ candle was removed ("hidden"), then later brought back to symbolize the anticipated resurrection of Christ. The services were concluded with the noise of a "clapper," said to symbolize the forces of evil and darkness, or the earthquake at Christ’s death.

The Tenebrae service always has a somber tone, reflected in the darkness, in the accounts of Christ’s suffering, in the music, and in the silence of the people as they leave the sanctuary. But underlying the somber feeling is the anticipation of the resurrection, mirrored in the Christ candle.

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