Wednesday, April 04, 2007


The Office is Tenebrae is (for Episcopalians) an optional observance, usually on Wednesday in Holy Week. I introduced it at St John's two (or was it three?) years ago, long after the Triduum was well established in the parish culture. It's not a particularly popular event--we drew 30 or so the first year, curious lookers--but have settled down to about half that. Tonight we had 18, this in a parish that averages about 170 on a Sunday. Not a high percentage.

While Tenebrae bears a resemblance to the normal round of Morning and Evening Prayer, it is truly unlike any other service of the year. It's certainly not an upper. You don't leave it whistling a catchy tune. It consists overwhelmingly of Psalms, Psalms, and more Psalms--and mostly the gloomier ones. Aside from three short periods of silent prayer, there is only one actual prescribed prayer, and that at the very end.

Much about Holy Week is "right-brained"--symbolic, imagistic, poetic--but Tenebrae is nearly exclusively so. The Psalms, of course, are poetry. If one is attentive to the Psalms, the Responsories, and the Readings (from Lamentations, Hebrews, and a treatise by St Augustine), one can tell that the overall theme is the passion of our Lord, but it's never laid out in a direct expository manner (as it will be, for example, in the Liturgy of Good Friday). It is glanced and glossed and alluded to in a way that demands our imaginative participation. You have to know the cues, and be able to read the signs. To a passive or uninstructed observer, Tenebrae is perhaps the dullest, most meaningless sort of "church" imaginable.

Whatever visual drama there is is quite minimalist. At the beginning of the service there are fifteen lit candles on the altar. After each Psalm, an acolyte gets up and snuffs one of the candles. Eventually, only one remains. After the final prayer, the Officiant places that candle out of view after which a loud noise (usually a sacristy door slamming) makes everyone jump. (This represents the earthquake and the darkness as Jesus hung on the cross.) Then the lone "Christ candle" is quietly replaced in its original position, and the service is over.

At a contemplative devotion like this one's mind is permitted to wander. Resistance is futile. As we prayed through Psalm 88--possibly the biggest "downer" in all of Holy Scripture--I flashed on the mind-numbing variety of immense suffering that human beings endure every day. There are vast numbers of people for whom Psalm 88 provides a voice. And during the Song of Hezekiah (from Isaiah 38), with its plaintive lament about Hezekiah being struck down in the "noonday" of his life, I thought of a friend from an earlier chapter of my life who died of cancer this week--at about my age, so certainly in the noonday of his life.

And now the Triduum, that on which everything else hangs.

1 comment:

Jim said...

…Psalm 88, yes, and the Lamentations! I prayed Tenebrae without community this year (from the Anglican Breviary). It’s actually today’s Matins and Lauds, where we are confronted with Christ’s betrayal. Antiphon on the Benedictus: “Now he that betrayed him gave him a sign saying: whom I shall kiss, that same is he; hold him fast.” How many ways we betray him, yet in what a wondrous way he returns our kiss! Fr. Dan, I pray you and your people a blessed Holy Week and Easter.