Candles - smallWritten by: Gregory Watson

They shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child; for the Lord, who is without sin, is slain.

—Twelfth Antiphon of the Tenebrae service

Last year, I experienced the deepest, darkest Good Friday of my life, when I went to a Tenebrae service at St. Patrick’s Church in Hamilton. I’d heard of Tenebrae, but other than knowing it would be dark, I really had no idea what to expect. Briefly, Tenebrae is a para-liturgical devotion that combines the matins and lauds of the last three days of Holy Week. Since as early as the 5th century, these were chanted in churches and monasteries as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, up until the 1950s, when Pope St. Pius XII made some adjustments to the liturgical celebration of Holy Week that made the traditional celebration of Tenebrae problematic. I’m not a liturgist by any means, so I can’t really explain all the ins and outs.  These days, however, Tenebrae services are held more and more often during Lent, especially Holy Week, as a devotional service.  If you have never been, I encourage you to do so, tonight if at all possible, or at least next year! (You can read the text of the liturgy here:

During the service a combination of Psalms, passages from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, texts from Hebrews, and the writings of St. Augustine are chanted sombrely, reflecting on Jesus’ passion.  The church is dark, lit only by about 15 candles on a candelabra known as a hearse.  As each portion of the service is sung, one of the candles is snuffed out, symbolising the abandonment of Jesus by His friends and Apostles, until finally, one lone candle remains. Then, as in the usual office of Lauds in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Benedictus, or Canticle of Zachariah, is sung, with the antiphon, “Now the women sitting at the tomb made lamentation, weeping for the Lord.” During the final antiphon, the last remaining candle, symbolising Christ Himself, is hidden, and we are in absolute darkness.

As we kneel, the words of Philippians 2:8-9 are sung:

Christ for us became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross;
therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the Name
which is above every name.


And then, silence. Silence and darkness. Christ has died. Even the red sanctuary lamp signifying His presence in the Tabernacle, is dark, because the Eucharist has been removed and reposed elsewhere after the Holy Thursday Mass. The Church is utterly empty, silent, and dark. Jesus is dead. He was crucified for our sins.

Our sins put Him on that Cross. Your sins. My sins.

And when the darkness has allowed that truth to sink in, it is punctuated by the mournful, monotone chant of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God…” Finally, the presider speaks, without chant, the Collect. At Mass, the Collect always ends with “Through the same Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You in the communion of the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen.” Not this time. This time, the Collect is depressingly simple in its starkness:

“Almighty God, we pray You graciously to behold this Your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross.”

Then, in the silence and the gloom, just as we think we can’t take any more, there is a loud crash! I had no idea this was part of the service, and it scared me half to death! A hymnal is slammed against a pew, or a cymbal is clanged, or feet are stomped. Something loud is done to signify the earthquake that occurred at the moment Christ died, and serves to both unsettle us further, and signify that the Tenebrae service is over. The final candle, which was hidden, is brought back out, and by that light alone do we make our way out of the church, back to our lives.

Last year, as I said, I was blessed to experience this service on Good Friday itself, “in real time” so to speak.  Holy Saturday was palpable in its depressing air, with the reality emphasised anew for me of the reality of Christ’s death. I had a taste of the despair the disciples must have felt at the death of their Messiah. I knew He rose again on Easter Sunday, but Tenebrae allowed me the opportunity to forget that, in order to enter into the reality of Jesus’ death.

And then…

And then…

Oh! And then…!

But, for now, you have to wait…



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