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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