Tenebrae evokes the road to Calvary - Catholic Courier

Tenebrae evokes the road to Calvary

A darkened church may be the best way to encourage Catholics to contemplate the light of Christ.

That’s the thinking behind Tenebrae, one of the church’s oldest practices, dating back more than 1,500 years. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows,” and involves the extinguishing of several candles to symbolize the growing aloneness and increasing suffering of Jesus during his Passion, as well as the apparent triumph of evil in the Crucifixion. The service includes readings and sometimes hymns, and concludes with removing a church’s paschal candle from view to symbolize the death of Jesus. In some cases, service organizers will loudly close a large door to symbolize either the closing of Christ’s tomb or the earthquake that accompanied his death.

A cursory search on the Web reveals both Protestants and Catholics still hold Tenebrae services, although in a somewhat different form than they took centuries ago, when they took place over the course of the second half of Holy Week. Ron McMillan, director of liturgy and music at St. Helen’s Parish in Gates, revived the service at his parish last year, and said it received positive reviews from his parishioners, including Deborah Sumner, parish secretary.

“If you’re on a Lenten journey, it sort of seals everything because of the prayerfulness of it, because of the representation of the walk Jesus took,” she said.

“We walk through the increasing agony, increasing loneliness, increasing betrayal, increasing desertion, mockery and death,” McMillan added.

Today’s Tenebrae services are generally one-time, one-hour affairs, often taking place only on Good Friday, according to various sources, including McMillan. He noted that his own parish will hold its Tenebrae service on March 18 at 7 p.m., because the parish’s youth group is presenting a Living Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. He added that, unlike some Tenebrae services, St. Helen’s will not feature music this year.

“Sometimes silence can be deafening,” he noted.

Modern Tenebrae services may include not only readings about the Passion, but contemporary-style reflections on it as well. For example, Marie A. Asner’s booklet “Tenebrae for Modern Times,” which outlines a suggested service, includes meditative readings “quoting” real and imagined scriptural characters as well as imagined contemporary characters. For example, Asner writes of the apostle Thomas doubting that Jesus really resurrected Lazarus — foreshadowing Thomas’ doubts about the risen Jesus whose wounds Thomas would have to touch in order to believe that he was risen. Asner then writes of a modern-day Thomas doubting God’s love as people suffer around him.

“If God really loves me, why does everything happen at once?” Asner’s modern-day Thomas says. “Look at my neighbor, she lost her father and her grandmother within a month’s time. I haven’t seen her smile in weeks. If you really are a God of love show me! Give me something to hold on to!”

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Elmira is also hosting a Tenebrae service at 7 p.m. March 23, according to Lisa Rustici, the parish’s sacramental coordinator. This is the fourth consecutive year Our Lady of Lourdes is holding such a service, she said, noting that she established the practice there after experiencing a Tenebrae service at her parents’ church in Pennsylvania. The Lourdes’ service is similar to the St. Helen’s service, except that it includes the singing of hymns.

“People have said to us that it’s one of the most moving things we’ve done during Lent,” Rustici said of the Tenebrae service.

She added that her son, Kevyn, slams a church door shut at the end of the service. “He really does like making people jump a bit,” she said with a chuckle.

On a serious note, the door-closing evokes the closing of Christ’s tomb as well as the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter triduum, she said.

“It gets people to pause and think about the Passion,” she said.

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