Years ago (as in probably 30 – 40 years ago), the idea of a Tenebrae service was foreign to many a church. However, the Roman Catholic Church embraced it early. And although such a service has ancient roots, it has only become popular and more regularly practiced in Mainline Protestant churches (and even some traditional evangelical churches) in recent decades. These “services of darkness”, as they are often called, have therefore become a “bright spot” one could say for churches coast-to-coast that are looking for fresh and creative ways to impart the Holy Week journey.
Thanks to sacred music publishers responding to the heightened awareness of Tenebrae, they have responded with a variety of publications which are ready-to-prepare-and-present as complete Tenebrae services with appropriate music and narration.
A Tenebrae is a special service for Holy Week that can be conducted on Wednesday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday (or of course any day of Holy Week when a church has a regular or additional special service).
“Tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “shadows” or “darkness,” so it is a service of shadows. The Tenebrae service makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles to symbolize the events of Holy Week from the triumphant Palm Sunday entry through Jesus's burial. This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus's death and of hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness, sometimes with a final candle, the Christ candle (extinguished or carried out of the sanctuary, symbolizing the death of Jesus). A loud noise may also sound symbolizing the closing of Jesus' tomb. The worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ's death and await the coming Resurrection.
Tenebrae services generally should begin in a dimly-lit sanctuary with five lit candles at the front, along with a sixth candle, the Christ candle. Each candle is extinguished as directed by the worship leader(s) during the service, with the Christ candle being extinguished near the end of the final piece of the work. Some churches desire the Christ candle not be extinguished, but taken from the sanctuary in front of a silent procession with the choir as they exit. Regardless of the approach you choose in extinguishing the Christ candle, the congregation should depart in silence. (This direction should be given in the program, so anyone in attendance who is not aware of this tradition of a Tenebrae service can be fully informed).
During a prelude, you may choose to have the choir process, with chosen laypersons or choir members leading the procession carrying the six lit candles. Those candles are then placed in holders in front of the sanctuary.
The narration may be read by one reader or several readers. If you choose to have more than one reader, the readings can be divided among lines and paragraphs as desired.
A new Tenebrae service published by Jubilate Music Group for 2019 (It is Finished by Mary McDonald) offers optional PowerPoint images for projection during the service, which correspond with the mood of each piece being sung. This additional service tool is offered as means to enhance the overall impact of the work and the events depicted during Holy Week. The PowerPoint images change with the beginning of each anthem sung during the 30-minute presentation.
Another service option for a Tenebrae is to serve communion during the work if so desired. This option further enhances and deepens the overall experience of the service, while engaging the congregants in the act of communion as did Jesus with his disciples during Holy Week.
In whatever manner you may choose to use a Tenebrae service, you’ll find this ancient service still speaks beautifully to today’s worshipers (especially when utilizing one of the newest or more recent published services which help guide and provide a compelling experience for all participants).