Guest post by Mark Cabaniss
Just 30 or 40 years ago, the Tenebrae service was foreign to many a church, despite the service’s ancient roots. The Roman Catholic Church embraced it early, but 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 become a “bright spot,” one could say, for churches around the world that are looking for fresh and creative ways to impart the Holy Week journey.
Sacred music publishers have responded to the heightened awareness of Tenebrae with a variety of publications that are ready to prepare and present as complete Tenebrae services with appropriate music and narration.
Tenebrae is a special service for Holy Week that can be conducted on Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, or any day of Holy Week when a church has a regular or additional special service.
The name “Tenebrae” comes from the Latin for “shadows” or “darkness,” and denotes a service of shadows. The Tenebrae service makes use of gradually diminishing light as candles are extinguished one-by-one to guide the congregation through 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 of hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness, sometimes with a final candle, the Christ candle, being extinguished or carried out of the sanctuary to represent the death of Jesus. A loud noise may also sound, echoing the closing of Jesus’s 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 dark sanctuary lit only by five 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 for the Christ candle, the congregation should part in silence. (This direction should be given in the program so that everyone in attendance can be fully informed.)
During a prelude, you may choose to have the choir process led by chosen choir members or laypersons 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 by 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 for 2019, Mary McDonald’s It Is Finished, offers PowerPoint images that correspond to the mood of each piece being sung. These can be projected during the service to enhance the overall impact of the work and help bring to life the events depicted during Holy Week. The images change with the beginning of each anthem sung during the 30-minute presentation.
Another service option for 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 Jesus did with his disciples during Holy Week.
In whatever manner you may choose to carry out Tenebrae, 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 that help guide and provide a compelling experience for all participants.
Mark Cabaniss is a music publisher, producer, writer and educator. He is President/CEO of Jubilate Music Group, based in Nashville, Tennessee. http://www.markcabaniss.com