Tenebrae, named after the Latin word for darkness, is a unique celebration of the early morning prayers of the Divine Office for the three days of the Easter Triduum.
From time immemorial, the Church has solemnized her celebration of Holy Week with a rich treasury of sacred rites hewn from the words of the Bible and enunciated with impressive liturgical symbols and actions. Among the most ancient of these is the observance known as Tenebrae, named after the Latin word for darkness, a unique celebration of the early morning prayers of the Divine Office for the three days of the Easter Triduum.
Even in the earliest reference to this observance, found in the 6th-century writings of Saint Gregory of Tours, we see that it had already become a mystical interplay between light and darkness, between sound and silence. Gregory tells how, late on the night of Good Friday, the nuns of Poitier's Monastery of the Holy Cross had been praying in the chapel in total darkness when inexplicably a spark of light appeared before the altar, and rising, grew into a bright effusion that penetrated the dark until, as dawn came, it faded away. For the nuns, this incident was a miraculous gift from God, but it also foreshadowed the unique manner in which the office of Tenebrae was to be celebrated everywhere over the centuries that followed, a watch of prayer in darkness pierced by the light of Christ.
Tenebrae is first and foremost a catena of prayer, Scripture readings, and homiletic texts in which the words, events, and imagery of the Old and New Testaments converge. In the earliest detailed accounts of Tenebrae from the 8th century, we see already the hallmark textual feature of this office, the singing of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a series of prophetic poems that have been described as the greatest songs of sorrow ever penned. In the context of Tenebrae they have become the Church's cry of anguish in contemplating the death of her Divine Bridegroom. Their immediate context concerns the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, but their underlying meaning transcends the limits of any one point in history. What is being recounted is not simply the ruin of a city. It is the ruin and downfall of a universe, a lament for the entire gamut of human suffering that has descended upon the world because of the sin of Adam. It is a vision of destruction on an apocalyptic scale, a catastrophic vision of a world without Christ, a world without God.
By the 11th century, the singing of each verse of the Lamentations in Latin would begin with a chant of the first letter of the Hebrew word with which the verse begins.
By the 11th century, the singing of each verse of the Lamentations in Latin would begin with a chant of the first letter of the Hebrew word with which the verse begins. This practice, alluding to the fact that in the original Hebrew these first letters of the verses form an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet for chapters one to four of the Lamentations, imparts an added aura of solemnity, mystery, and antiquity to the text.
From the late 16th century onward, the verses from the Lamentations selected for Tenebrae have been Lamentations 1:1-5, 6-9, and 10-14 for Holy Thursday, Lamentations 2:8-11, 12-15, and 3:1-9 for Good Friday, and Lamentations 3:22-30, 4:1-6, and 5:1-11 for Holy Saturday.
The Extinction of Light
11th-century monastic sources are the earliest to speak of the candle-stand that has become the visual symbol of Tenebrae, known as the hearse or Tenebrario, most commonly triangular in shape. During the Middle Ages, the number of candles on the hearse varied widely. The use of fifteen candles became the norm in the Roman Breviary of 1568. The ceremonial extinction of these candles as the offices of Matins and Lauds (the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer) progress, described in an 11th-century customary of Saint Paul's Monastery in Rome, has remained essentially the same for at least a thousand years: "just as many candles should be lit as are the psalms to be assigned…the hebdomadarian [the priest leading the divine office for the week] should begin the antiphon, Zeal for your house has consumed me, and immediately one candle should be extinguished on one side, another thereafter; and thus should it be done in beginning all the psalms."
The custom of leaving one candle lit on the Tenebrae hearse at the end of the rite, symbolizing Christ, is mentioned for the first time in an 11th-century breviary of York, England.
Tenebrae at Sea
The dramatic role of light in the rite of Tenebrae has been manifested in a wide variety of settings, from vast cathedrals to small country churches, but perhaps the most remarkable Tenebrae venue was described by the Jesuit missionary Father Fernando de Alcaraz in 1565. He and his fellow Jesuits were headed for India aboard a Portuguese galleon that had just left the African coast as they prepared to celebrate Holy Week. With limited resources they managed to erect a candle-stand for Tenebrae, and possessed voices skillful enough to sing the office in polyphony, as if they were a cathedral choir. The young sailors manning the ship were eager to be on deck for this beautiful rite, but as there was not sufficient room, many of them climbed onto the rigging and sails to take part and listen from above. As night fell over the sea, Father Alcaraz was struck by the otherworldly sight of the flickering candlelight casting a glow upon the faces of the sailors on the rigging, who seemed as if they had ascended to heaven and were in celestial glory.
Such has always been the case with Tenebrae: it not only articulates the universal drama of salvation, but it also speaks powerfully to what is happening in our own lives.
On the following evening, Tenebrae had scarcely begun when a violent squall descended upon the ship, compelling the sailors to do all they could to save the vessel from sinking. One of the missionary priests set about reciting prayers for protection from the storm, sprinkling holy water at the tempest. Soon the storm departed, the seas subsided, and the missionaries were able to resume Tenebrae.
Later that evening, as Tenebrae was nearing its conclusion with the chanting of the Benedictus, Zechariah's canticle of thanksgiving, undoubtedly the missionaries and sailors found in its words of gratitude for deliverance from the shadow of death (Lk 1:79) an altogether new and personal meaning. Such has always been the case with Tenebrae: it not only articulates the universal drama of salvation, but it also speaks powerfully to what is happening in our own lives.
Many parishes continue to offer some form of a Tenebrae service during Holy Week. For those of you unable to attend one, consider reading and praying the passages from Lamentations mentioned above in the morning of each day, perhaps incorporated into Prayer for the Morning from Magnificat. If possible, have a crucifix or an icon of our Lord present and three candles, extinguishing one after each of the first two passages. Leave the last one lighted for a time of silent prayer and meditation, until concluding Prayer for the Morning.
The contemplative stillness of Tenebrae opens our eyes to all the mystery and beauty of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, its darkness an introspective preparation for the night that shall be "as bright as day," that "truly blessed night,/ worthy alone to know the time and hour/ when Christ rose from the underworld."
James Monti. "Tenebrae: A Sacred Journey." Magnificat (March, 2021).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
James Monti is an author and historian who has contributed numerous articles to Catholic publications, including the monthly missalMagnificat. His other books include The King's Good Servant But God's First: The Life & Writings of St. Thomas More, The Week of Salvation and In the Presence of Our Lord.Copyright © 2021 Magnificat
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