What is a Tenebrae Service?

On Friday, April 19, we will be joined by Sojourn Church to have a special kind of Good Friday service, called a Tenebrae service. What’s that? I’m glad you asked. But first, let me explain how we got here.

Last year we had our first ever Good Friday service. This service is an extended meditation on the cross of Christ. On Good Friday we remember what we recite in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” This moment in history is massively important, because at the cross Jesus was exchanging himself for sinners, taking the wrath of God we deserve. Without the cross, there can be no forgiveness of sins, no justification, no hope of eternal life. No cross, no Christianity.

The gospel writers understood the significance of these events and devoted large portions of their books to Jesus’ last week. John’s gospel, for example, has 21 chapters, and 9 of them are devoted to that one week. Historically, the church has picked up on this by observing what is often called Holy Week, highlighting Palm Sunday (the Sunday Jesus was welcomed by crowds into Jerusalem), Maundy Thursday (remembering the Last Supper), Good Friday, and Easter.

But what about Tenebrae?

Tenebrae is a Latin word meaning “darkness” or “shadows.” Tenebrae services have been practiced by the church since medieval times. Using Scripture, songs, and light, the Tenebrae service dramatizes for us the gathering darkness culminating in Jesus’ death. Our Good Friday service will conclude with a series of readings taking us through Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. After each reading a candle is blown out until the final candle is quenched, symbolizing Jesus’ death. Our service will end in silence, without a benediction, as we await the good news of the resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.

Are we adding new rituals to our church life?

Last year we had a Good Friday service and, in December, an Advent series. Our desire for these was to prepare us for Easter and Christmas, remembering our Lord’s incarnation and resurrection. In the past we’ve tended to shy away from some of these yearly church calendar events that many churches celebrate, and that some of us grew up experiencing, out of a desire to avoid empty rituals.

Then a strange thing happened. I, for one, have noticed that when I set aside time in December to meditate on Jesus’ birth, Christmas becomes more meaningful. And last year’s Good Friday service got me focused on Jesus’ death in a way that brought much greater anticipation of and celebration over his resurrection on Sunday morning. We are, after all, a community that wants to exalt Jesus and we’re always looking for ways to promote that.

Maybe there’s something to be learned about building the church calendar in a way that intentionally sets our eyes on Christ at these key moments? Or maybe we’re just repeating a cycle that starts well and ends in ritualism? On the one hand, it is true that any repeated act can become empty, whether that be standing for the Star-Spangled Banner at a baseball game or remembering your friend’s birthday. On the other hand, repeated practices, give shape and permanence to some of the things we hold most dear, such as a wedding ceremony or our Sunday gathering when we gather to sing to God and to hear from him through preaching.

What do you think about taking a few steps in the direction of a church calendar that intentionally focuses on Christmas and Easter? What do you think about having an Advent series before Christmas, or a Good Friday service, or even noting Palm Sunday? I’d love to hear from you about these things.

And I hope you can join us for our Good Friday – Tenebrae service on Friday, April 19, from 7:00-8:00 p.m. as we come together for an extended meditation on the cross of Christ, and to prepare ourselves for the spectacular joy of Easter Sunday morning.

 

Grace,

Mark Mullery