Tenebrae: Pursuing the Whole Worshipper

The gospels portray the passion of Jesus as more than an atoning transaction. Indeed, Jesus’ suffering was the tragic culminating moment of Adam’s race when not only sin-guilt bottlenecked, but also the total darkened experience of exiled humanity living east of Eden—separation, loneliness, contention, accusation, guilt, frustration, futility, and in the end, death. The darkness of Good Friday accents the brightness of Easter morning as nothing less than the dawning of a new creation. The resurrection of the second Adam is the beginning of a whole new humanity in a whole new world.  Not only is there absolution, but all things are made new.

If we use Good Friday worship as merely an opportunity to straighten out people’s minds on sin and punishment, then we shouldn’t be surprised to discover God’s people (mis)understand the resurrection as nothing more than a muddled metaphor for going to heaven when they die. If, however, Good Friday worship invites the whole person—the bodily senses, the imagination, and the emotions as well as the mind and its thoughts—to behold Christ bearing away every horror of exiled humanity, then the worshipper will be ready to celebrate Easter not just as the escape of sin’s due punishment but also as the bursting forth of shalom. To forget this when planning Holy Week worship is like explaining the mathematics of nuclear fusion to a blind person and then being annoyed when they can’t imagine the brightness of the dawn.

Our congregation would get high marks on a nuclear physics test, but they might be unsure how to enjoy the warmth of the sun. We are most comfortable with words and thoughts, but a bit unsettled by experiences and physicality. Tenebrae worship provides a solution by bringing these established values together with new elements in a way that would engage the whole worshipper in the full drama of Jesus’ last hours.

Tenebrae (latin for ‘darkness’ or ‘shadow’) is a pattern of worship in which a congregation is taken through a journey of encroaching darkness as vignettes of Jesus’ suffering are read and candles are extinguished after each reading. After the scene of Jesus’ death, the final candle is extinguished, plunging the space into blackness. Lectio sacra is a comfortable ritual for our congregation, but by isolating separate scenes of the story and by using light and darkness, our people were introduced to something new—something which invited them to slow down, imagine, and behold the totality of Jesus’ multifaceted suffering, rather than hurrying forward to think theological thoughts about the death of Christ.

We complemented and enhanced this basic tenebrae pattern with other aspects of the service. We used unusual black candles that can’t be seen in dim light and therefore give their flames the appearance of floating thereby summoning the people to imagine as the story unfolded. Our church has colored paraments that typically go unnoticed, but during the service we paused to strip the purple of Lent and replace it with black, thus inviting worshippers to see the humiliation of Jesus unto death. We are accustomed to a large variety of musical instruments in ensemble, but on that night music was lead with only strong unison voices, delicate classical guitar, and a droning cello in order to aid the congregation in hearing the concentrated solemnity of the evening. Our community is used to participatory liturgy, but on Good Friday we noticeably slowed the liturgical cadence and highlighted the readings with prayers and antiphons that allowed the congregation to participate in the drama of the passion.

The climax of our Good Friday Tenebrae was the Eucharist. Having shortened the homily to a third of its typical length, we took time later in the service to discuss the meal in detail. We urged worshippers to resist the temptation toward an individualistic, isolated introspection in which they might pay some sort of penance of self-loathing for their sins. Instead, in the midst of the ever-darkening evening, we drew a surprising contrast and called them to see the supper not as a wake, but as a candlelight dinner to which their loving Savior had invited them. The ultimate purpose of the meal was not absolution—that is only a means to an end—but rather feasting. Moreover, this feast is a foretaste of the Great Feast to come when night will dissolve into the swift sunrise of new creation (Isaiah 25, Revelation 19). Thus the congregation was invited to greet one another, to rejoice, and to smell, touch, and taste Christ. The Eucharist, then, was a moment of jollity, a flicker of light into the darkness that gave deeper meaning to both that evening as well as the morning to come.

At the end of the supper when dusk no longer shone through the stained glass and when all the candles were snuffed save a lone, white taper in the center of the chancel, we read that Jesus breathed his last, and with a quick puff of breath the last flame went out. Then, with no dénouement to bring closure, God’s people departed in silence to await the dawning of Eastertide.

The following week I heard comments that were qualitatively different than the usual feedback. Instead of complementing delivery, vocabulary, or thought-provoking insight, I heard that people had been moved. They had been moved toward Jesus, and they had been moved toward each other. More importantly, they felt they had experienced Jesus moving toward them.

The Good Friday Tenebrae worked because of God’s Spirit, but, as is often the case the Spirit worked through means. My guess is that those means entailed the artful conjoining of familiar elements such as lectio sacra, prayers, antiphons, songs, paraments, and architecture with new, yet subtle, aesthetics such as candlelight, colors, intentional instrumentation, a slowed pace, and existential contrast. The result was an experience in which the whole worshipper was pursued and invited into the whole story of Jesus’ passion as a stage-setting for the whole glory of redemption; all the way from creation to new creation. Theology and thinking were not abandoned, and atonement was not diminished. Rather, these parts were artfully placed in their whole context, freeing the worshipper from atomistic musings on the gospel unto an invitation to truly behold the Drama, which has changed the world.

Jay Thomas Hewitt cut his teeth in ministry at Grace Church in Seattle, WA where he also had the privilege of working as a professional classical musician outside of the church. Three years ago he moved to Saint Louis, MO to lead the Liturgical Arts ministry of Central Presbyterian Church where his goal has been to apply his expertise as both a musician and a pastor to a movement of worship reform within the church.  Jay Thomas holds Bachelors degrees in music and psychology from Furman University as well as a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary.  He will commence postgraduate studies at the University of St. Andrews this fall.  

5 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    The most moving Tenebrae service I ever attended was at the Presbyterian church in which I grew up. Near the end of the service, the account of the Crucifixion, I believe, was read in the darkness. Suddenly, from the back of the church, came three loud clangs. Hammer struck nail three times, paused, then three times again, paused, then a final three times – left hand, right hand, feet. It was chilling. I still bring that memory to mind every Good Friday at my current Catholic church.

    I look forward to meeting you and welcoming you to the St Andrews postgrad community this autumn!

    • J. Thomas Hewitt says:

      Cole, that sounds like fittingly dramatic end to the service.

      What church do you attend in St. Andrews? I look forward to meeting.

  • Cole Matson says:

    Jay,

    I attend St James, the only Catholic church in St Andrews. (I converted two years ago.)

  • Ryan says:

    Thank you for your reflections on the Tenebrae service. After reading Don Saliers Worship as Theology, my wife and I moved from the baptist eccelsial world to an Anglican one where we found the whole movement of the Triduum one of the most amazing things we have ever experienced. Our priest remarked how odd he found it that the artist (me) in the community was the one most drawn to the most sensually reserved liturgy of the year on Holy Saturday. There is something about the absence and silence of the day that deeply resonates with me. Only by walking these dark days, does the light of the the Easter Vigil or Easter Morning seem appropriately bright.

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