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The Proper Form and Function of Tenebrae Services

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On Good Friday, my family and I attended a Tenebrae service for the first time. The word tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” and, in this case, describes a service in which physical darkness plays a central role in leading the worshiper into a place of emotional lament over the death of Jesus Christ. In terms of structure, the Tenebrae service resembles the Christmas celebration of Lessons and Carols, interspersing Scripture readings with songs and hymns. The major difference between the two, of course, is that while the Christmas service of Lessons and Carols is a service of joy over the birth of Jesus, the Tenebrae service is one of lament over the death of Jesus. Generally, during the Tenebrae service, a series of candles are extinguished, one at a time, until the entire sanctuary rests in near or absolute darkness. This practice, along with the carefully chosen readings and songs are aimed at helping the worshiper realize the gravity of the sacrifice that Christ made on his or her behalf.
            It is unfortunate that such services have come to play such a minor role in many of our Protestant churches. It seems as though we have relegated such formal expressions of mourning to an overly-liturgical past, preferring instead the up-beat and always-happy pleasantries of our contemporary praise choruses. We have lost the ability to worship through lament. Yet lament is a biblical category. There is an entire book of the bible dedicated to lamentation, not to mention innumerable psalms. Worship is meant to envelop our whole being and appropriate our entire palette of emotion, from the zenith of ecstasy to the nadir of desolation. The Tenebrae tradition is a useful tool for fine-tuning this aspect of human worship and directing it at what must be the single most lamentable event to ever occur in human history, the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
            Still and all, it occurs to me that we must be careful in how we employ the Tenebrae service in our churches. There seem to be two strands of the Tenebrae tradition. In one strand (which happens to be the one celebrated in the church my family and I visited on Good Friday) the service ends with the extinguishing of the final candle, symbolizing the death of Christ, and the congregation is dismissed in respectful and mournful silence. In the other strand of the tradition, after the fateful candle is extinguished and the darkness and silence have been allowed to reign for a time, a single, lit candle is carried from the rear of the sanctuary to the front, where it is deposited in a prominent place to symbolize the hope of Easter.
            Without making it a central point of doctrine or methodology, I would like to tentatively suggest that the latter form of the Tenebrae service is to be preferred for two reasons.

            Hope Is A Centerpiece of Biblical Lament

Biblically speaking, hope is virtually always present in the biblical laments. In the book of Lamentations, hope is, quite literally, the centerpiece. As many commentators have noted, the book of Lamentations is carefully crafted as a huge, chiastic poem, drawing the reader’s attention to the centermost chapter and the centermost verses of that chapter. There, in the midst of some of the most mournful dirges, we encounter some of the most hopeful assurances: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’ . . . For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” (Lamentations 3:21–24; 31–33)
Some of the most tragic psalms of lament are not without inspiring notes of hope either. At the end of Psalm 14, for example, after decrying the sins of the wicked, David exclaims, “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.” (Psalm 14:7)
Similarly, in Psalm 17, David contrasts his own integrity with the duplicity of his enemies and concludes by saying to the Lord, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” (Psalm 17:15)
Indeed, there are precious few Lament Psalms that lack a confident assertion of the hope that is to be found only in God (one such, though, might be Psalm 88). The very Psalm that Jesus alludes to as he is being crucified, Psalm 22, while opening with that famous cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” concludes with some of the strongest indications of impending triumph to flow from the psalmist’s reed: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you . . . For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him . . . All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” (Psalm 22:22, 24, 29–31)
My point is simply this: from a biblical perspective, worshipful lament is not complete without a firm grasp of the hope provided by a gracious and all-wise God.

The Account of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus is Not a Nature-Myth and Must Not Be Celebrated As One

Many ancient religions have nature-myth elements—the coming to earth of a divine being, followed by the death and resurrection of some form of that supernatural person. The Egyptians had Osiris-Horus, the Greeks had Dionysus, the Babylonians had Ishtar, the Norse had Baldr. Such nature-myth heroes are what C.S. Lewis, following Sir James Frazer, referred to in his book, Miracles, as “corn kings,” due to their connection with the crop cycles of the cultures in which they are found.
Lewis, an atheist-turned-theist-turned-Christian, understood well the similarities between the passion narratives of the Gospels and the nature-myths of other religions. But he also understood that the story of Jesus is not merely another nature myth. He writes, “[Y]ahweh is clearly NOT a Nature-God. He does not die and come to life each year as a true Corn-king should. He may give wine and fertility, but must not be worshipped with Bacchanalian or aphrodisiac rites.” That is to say, we must not think that the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is merely a metaphysical way of explaining the life-cycle of our yearly wheat crops. The death and resurrection of Jesus are historical events that took place at a particular moment of time.
The implication of this fact for the way we celebrate Good Friday Tenebrae services is glaring. By adhering to the first strand of the Tenebrae tradition, as outlined above—concluding the service in darkness and silence, thereby embracing the mournfulness of the death of Christ entirely apart from the hope of the resurrection—we are subtly affirming a cycle of death and resurrection. But Christians do not ground their faith in such a cycle! We ground our faith in an event! That is to say, the resurrection of Jesus happened. We must not pretend, even for the sake of expressing worshipful lamentation, that it did not.
By all means, let’s re-introduce the Tenebrae service to our congregations. But let not one congregant leave these services without the certain knowledge that the darkness did not finally triumph. Let’s re-light the Christ candles at the conclusion of the Tenebrae service, affirming the biblical principle of hope in the midst of lament and aligning ourselves with the reformer, John Calvin, who said (albeit with a somewhat different connotation) Post Tenebras Lux—“After the Darkness, Light!”

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