Monday, March 30, 2009



In the years prior to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the name given to the Divine Office of Matins and Lauds, celebrated the evening before Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, was Tenebrae (Latin for Darkness), anticipating the liturgical Offices of the last three days of Holy Week (now the Liturgy of the Hours of the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer, celebrated on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mornings). It differed, in many ways, from the Divine Office of the whole rest of the year. Its tone was sad and mournful; nothing could more emphatically express the grief that weighed down the heart of our holy Mother Church at the death of Jesus. Throughout these celebrations of the liturgy of the Divine Office she forbad herself the use of those prayers of joy and hope which, on all the other days during the year, she began her praise of God in the light of the morning. All that was left was what was essential to the Divine Office: psalms, lessons and chants, all expressive of grief at the death of Jesus, the Lord. The tone of the whole Office was mournful: the Lessons were taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Glory be to the Father was omitted and the darkness of these services was designed to mark the Church’s desolation at the death of Jesus.

The name Tenebrae was given because it was celebrated in the hours of darkness, anticipating the early morning Offices on the evening before those great days. In the sanctuary, near the altar, stood a large triangular candlestick, the Tenebrae Hearse, holding fifteen unbleached wax candles. At the end of each psalm or canticle, one of these fifteen candles was extinguished, but the one candle at the top of the Hearse was left lighted. During the singing of the Canticle of Zachariah at the end of Lauds (Morning Prayer), the six candles on the altar (also of unbleached wax) were also put out. At the end of the Office, a loud noise was made signifying (the end of the service) or the earthquake at the moment of Christ’s death and the earthquake that marked His resurrection. All departed in silence. Today, a similar liturgical service takes place.

The meaning of these ceremonies is centuries old. The glory of the Son of God had been obscured, eclipsed, by the sufferings and ignominies He endured during His Passion. He, the Light of the World, powerful in word and work, Who but a few days ago had been proclaimed King by the people of Jerusalem, is now robbed of all His honors. He is, according to the prophet Isaiah, the “Man of sorrows”, (Isaiah 53:3) a “leper”; a “worm” of the earth, and “no man” (Psalm 22:7). He is, an object of shame even to his own disciples, for they are all scandalized by him (Mark 14:27) and abandon Him; even Peter, the Rock, protests that he never knew Him (Lk. 22:57). The desertion on the part of His apostles and disciples is expressed by the candles being extinguished, one after the other, not only on the Hearse, but also on the altar itself. But Jesus, our Light, though despised and betrayed, is not extinguished, not put out. This is signified by the single candle at the apex of the Hearse which continues to burn. It symbolizes our Redeemer suffering and dying on Calvary but also rising to new life on Easter morning. The loud noise expresses the convulsions of nature which occurred when Jesus died on the cross: the earth quaked, rocks were split, and the dead came forth from their tombs. On the morning of that first Easter, the earth shook again as the stone rolled back from the tomb, and the now risen Savior received the homage paid to the Conqueror of sin and death. (Excerpted from the revered Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger, the Catholic Encyclopedia and other sources.)

This year we will pray Tenebrae at St. Sebastian on Good Friday and Holy Saturday mornings.