The Holy Week worship of the Church, coming from the earliest days of Christianity, helps us enter into the depths of faith and life. By symbol, word and sacrament we enter with Christ the way of the cross, and look deeply at our own lives and belief.
At St Chrysostom’s we invite people, as Holy Week begins, to join us for one of the less familiar acts of worship of Holy Week, Tenebrae. This beautiful and sombre service of moving simplicity helps us enter in heart and mind the realities of the week. At the beginning of the service a stand of candles, the Tenebrae ‘hearse’, is set before the people. During the worship the candles are extinguished one by one until only one remains. Psalms and prayers are recited and passages from the Lamentations of Jeremiah are chanted.
Over the centuries the form of Tenebrae has changed, developed and changed again. The number of candles has ranged over time from 5 to 72. The location of the hearse in churches has varied, the readings and chants have changed. One thing remains constant the plaintive chanting and the role of light and darkness. The Latin name of the worship, Tenebrae means deep darkness, and can mean the darkness of death.
At St Chrysostom’s we have our own version translated to our setting. Nevertheless, to show we are rooted in tradition we follow the common tradition of having 15 candles (as in 11th century Cluny). We place the hearse in front of the altar (as ‘anciently at York’)! The readings and psalms are simply and poignantly chanted.
Tenebrae ends with the Gospel account of Judas leaving to betray the Lord. At the end of the Gospel a door is slammed (even this loud noise has a liturgical term – the Strepitus) and there is silence.
Several explanations of the symbolism of Tenebrae have been offered, none are entirely convincing. For this is profound, and sacred, theatre which speaks on a very deep, primitive level, which words cannot fully grasp.
As Holy Week begins we enter into the darkness, into the depth of faith. At the end of Tenebrae a single light remains burning, not overcome by darkness, a light which, our hope is, will grow and spread at Easter.