On Tenebrae

(Author’s note: Our church will not have a Tenebrae service this year, though we will have a Good Friday service. We have not had much opportunity for choral preparation this year, and I appreciate our new pastor’s desire for a reverent, God-honoring service rather than something hastily prepared just to fulfil an expected obligation. Perhaps in the future we may return to a Tenebrae  service, but if not, I am none the less thankful for what lies ahead in God’s sovereign delight. This was written, long-hand, in April of 2012, and never previously published. The delay was mostly due to my lack of time. I am publishing this now, with my pastor’s blessing, as a means of sharing of the goodness of God, and giving those interested a taste of what a service is like from the pew. The substance was written two years ago. I have edited for grammar and clarity. Finally, by way of introduction, I am thankful for the reverence to God our previous pastor showed to God’s people as he led us in this traditional service)


” ‘Tenebrae’ is Latin for ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’. It is also the name of a traditional worship service performed in the last three days leading up to Easter Sunday. — From service program at First Baptist Church.

Words cannot truly express the right feeling we experience in the service of Tenebrae. Yet, I will make a feeble attempt to describe to my fellows what I heard and saw and felt. Why? I have at least three reasons.

First, though we have observed Tenebrae for several years, now, I have missed the last couple of years. (I was working out-of-state during Holy Week.) I had forgotten how much I very much enjoy the service of Tenebrae. And, if I can forget so easily, how much more I need to remember and observe.

Secondly, expressing it in words, now, helps me meditate, in the sense of Psalm one, upon the Man of Sorrows, and the passion of Christ. To consider Christ’s passion in this manner is quite Biblical. See Philippians 4:8.

But thirdly, I want to briefly describe, for the generations to come, that they may know, and long for, sweet communion with our Lord Jesus Christ. It is never enough that we long for the Eternal Son ourselves. It is ever important that we should desire that others would share that joy as well.

Already, I may have said too much, in preface.  I do not desire to advertise, or marginalize this time I love.


Before we begin, I notice certain changes in the placement of the furniture. The mobile lectern we normally use during our teaching time has been moved to the congregation’s right front. It takes the place where the studio-sized piano normally sits. The piano has been moved to the rear of the sanctuary, positioned so that the pianist may look over her music to the backs of the congregation. In the centre of the front – also off the platform — the communion table has been pulled out a few feet toward the congregation, as it is when we celebrate communion.  In place of the elements of the Eucharist, however, are six or seven long taper candles that are white.  They are all lit and burning brightly, but may easily be overlooked in the face of the 300-watt bulbs that brighten the start of the service.

We begin. The choir members are now seated with family, and the instrumentalists now rest near the piano. Rich and sonorous harmony will waft over us from the rear in a few moments.  In the first part of the service, we alternate between Scripture reading and congregational song. Throughout the Bible readings about Christ’s passion, and our own voices lifted in worship, the lighting gradually dims. As our pastor snuffs out each candle in its turn, the usher dims the ceiling lights, as well.

The sense of foreboding darkens with the realization that at some point, only one candle will remain burning, and then, it, too, will be silenced. This increasing darkness “instructs our meditation upon the increasing anguish of our Lord, and corresponds with the actual mid-day darkening of the land during the Crucifixion.” At several points, I especially catch a tightness in my throat, and a weeping in my soul over my own sin.

The first heaviness upon my heart – a feeling of constriction – is when the skilfully played sole violin hauntingly wails the introduction and accompaniment to Bach’s Erbarme Dich. With its minor-key sound and the echoes of the Near East harmonies, the laments of the piece bring to my imagination the streets of Old Jerusalem in which Christ’s passion and anguish were clearly seen by all who forsook Him and denied that they knew the Christ.

Joined to the lamenting strings was the ethereal, other-worldly, solo soprano crying out in Bach’s German, on behalf of Peter,

“Have mercy, my God/

for the sake of my tears!/

Look here, heart and eyes/

weep bitterly before you./

Have mercy. Have mercy.”//

The choir’s addition to this lament brings repentance and hesitant rejoicing in God’s mercy and grace.

The second time we all get really choked up is when we came to the Responsive Reading from Matthew 27:20-26. There, in the voice of the multitude, we say with them:

“Let Him be crucified!”/

“Let Him be crucified!”

In response to Pilate’s washing of his own hands, we echo the multitude, saying, with callousness and foolishness,

“His blood be on us and our children!!”

Speaking the unspeakable, and voicing the unimaginable, a chill runs down my spine. Oh, the audacity of wicked man and woman, and of my own brazen and deliberate sin! It makes me weep, even this morning, and I remember many sins I have confessed and for which  I have been forgiven because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ. The height of His love and the wideness of his mercy is great. Truly, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

The sobering remembrance of this one facet of the crucifixion day is followed by the congregation singing,O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thous Broken?

Nearing the end, the choir’s rendition of Lottis’ Surely He Hath Borne our Griefssobers us even more.  After the last note of Bach’s “Crucifixus“, we are still and silent, meditating in complete darkness for a few moments; in one way, these moments do not seem to be enough time. A small child cries, startled that he or she has awakened in the darkness.

When the lights are turned up slightly, all of us begin filing out of the sanctuary toward the foyer. We walk silently, barely hearing a footfall, with very little eye contact, except to coordinate the gathering of each family in the respective vehicles to go home.

On the way home, we are silent; even the small children. We are silent, through our reticence to break the mood, and they, through simple and quiet instruction. The feeling I have is one of a terrible loss, more profound and deep than the events  of 9/11, or the sudden passing of my own father to his Heavenly home. For those who have neither experience, it is only slightly similar to the awkward but necessary silence one feels after witnessing a fight between two people you love.

“For surely, he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.”

“But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities.
Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid upon Him
the iniquity of us all.”

–Isaiah 53:4-6 (ESV)