Vocabulary —Tenebrae

Frequently Asked Question:

Silouette of a person holding a candle with a dark background and the words "Service of Darkness"

What does tene­brae mean? What is the Tene­brae ser­vice?

The sim­ple answer is that Tene­brae is the Ser­vice of Dark­ness. This is a spe­cial wor­ship ser­vice tak­en from an ear­ly Chris­t­ian ser­vice called Tene­brae, the Latin word for “dark­ness” or “shad­ows.” In this ser­vice, through dark­ness, we imag­ine only a small por­tion of Christʼs pain and suf­fer­ing the day of His cru­ci­fix­ion.

A key fea­ture of the Tene­brae ser­vice is the grad­ual extin­guish­ing of can­dles until only one sin­gle can­dle, con­sid­ered a sym­bol of our Lord, remains lit.Photo of a lighted candle with a paper circle to catch the wax

Tenebrae Worship Service

The pur­pose of the ser­vice is to recre­ate the betray­al, aban­don­ment, and agony of the events, and it is left unfin­ished, because the sto­ry isn’t over until East­er Day.

Drawing of 3 people holding books and singing with the words "Tenebrae Service" below musical notes.

The ser­vice may include oth­er parts, such as solemn hymns, a ser­mon, and Com­mu­nion. It starts out with the church in can­dle­light. (Tra­di­tion­al­ly, there are as many can­dles as there are readings—plus a white Christ can­dle.) 

The most dis­tinc­tive aspect of the ser­vice is the use of a Tene­brae “hearse,” a hold­er for sev­er­al lit can­dles. The flames of these can­dles are extin­guished one by one as Scrip­ture read­ings are shared to tell the sto­ry of Holy Week. This grad­ual descent into gloom is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Jesus’ increas­ing sor­row as the events of Pas­sion Week unfold­ed. As it gets dark­er and dark­er we can reflect on the great emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal pain that was very real for Jesus that evening.After the last verse is read, the last can­dle is put out, and the room is plunged into dark­ness.

Drawing of a man's face with half black as if in shadow and the words "Service of Darkness."

Toward the end of the ser­vice, the Christ can­dle is hid­den, typ­i­fy­ing the appar­ent vic­to­ry of the forces of evil over good, leav­ing the con­gre­ga­tion in near total dark­ness.. At the very end, a loud noise is made (called the strepi­tus), sym­bol­iz­ing the earth­quake at the time of His death (Matthew 27) and His res­ur­rec­tion (Matthew 28:2) and to rep­re­sent the clos­ing of Christ’s tomb.

A loud noise may be sound­ed in the black­ness, such as the vio­lent clos­ing of a book, at this point, anoth­er lit can­dle, which has been hid­den from view, is put at the top of the hearse, sym­bol­iz­ing Christ’s res­ur­rec­tion. The ser­vice ends, and the par­tic­i­pants are tra­di­tion­al­ly expect­ed to leave in con­tem­pla­tive silence. There is no bless­ing and the peo­ple leave in silence. (The lights remain dim, just light enough so that peo­ple can see their way out.)

A cross draped with a cloth and the words "Good Friday"

Historically —tradition from long ago

In old­er times, the church would of course, be in near-dark­ness, since the Office of Tene­brae didn’t begin until about 9 or 10 in the evening.

Drawing of candles being snuffed out with the words "Tenebrae Service"

The only light tra­di­tion­al­ly came from the Tene­brae hearse, or large can­dle hold­er. This was placed in the choir, with fif­teen lit can­dles. Some loca­tions use beige can­dles for all except the top can­dle, which sym­bol­izes Our Lord Jesus Christ. After each of the Psalms – nine for Matins and five for Lauds – the bot­tom-most can­dle is extin­guished, alter­nat­ing sides.

Darkness of the World

Not only does this slow­ly bring the church clos­er to com­plete dark­ness, and the time in the Office when the death of Our Lord is com­mem­o­rat­ed, but it pro­vides a stark visu­al that Our Lord is slow­ly but sure­ly left alone in the dark­ness of the world, fraught with sin.

Photo inside a church in the dark with people holding candles for light.

Final Candle Goes Out

At the end of the final les­son, the final can­dle is removed by a serv­er or cler­ic, and hid­den behind a cur­tain or the altar, sig­ni­fy­ing the bur­ial of Our Lord in the tomb. A noise is made, sym­bol­iz­ing the earth­quake at the Cru­ci­fix­ion. In some loca­tions, the cel­e­brant sim­ply slams his book shut, and in oth­ers the cler­ics and con­gre­ga­tion knock on their pews for a time. The can­dle is final­ly extin­guished, and replaced on the hearse.

Drawing of a woman holding a lighted candle with both hands and the words "Tenebrae Service."

 

The Office comes to an abrupt end, with­out the usu­al bless­ing. The cler­gy and the faith­ful leave the Church in silence, with­out hymn.

Banner with dark background and the words "Service of Darkness" with the "i" in service is a lighted candle.

 

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