Tenebrae, meaning shadows or darkness in Latin, is a Holy Week service that uses the simplicity of mostly darkness and some candlelight, along with psalms, prayers and music to reflect on the death of Jesus Christ.
Tenebrae involves the singing of two parts of the Divine Office — also known as the Liturgy of the Hours — in anticipation and observance of the Holy Triduum, which consists of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Matins and Lauds, the night and early morning prayers of the Divine Office, are combined to create the Tenebrae service.
The service takes place at night, in anticipation of the next day coming; services can be held on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday night of Holy Week. There is no set time that the service must begin, but Tenebrae often begins an hour after Vespers, the evening prayer of the Divine Office, is completed. The service is to end before midnight.
In the first part of the Tenebrae service, there are three nocturnes (a nighttime musical composition), each with three psalms; a versicle and response; the recitation of the Our Father; and a reading. During the second part there are five psalms, a versicle and response, the Benedictus Canticle, another recitation of Our Father and a reflection on the death of Jesus, called “Respice quaesumus”. During the service, the lights in the church will be dimmed and a large, triangular candleholder with 15 candles will sit on the altar. After the reading of each psalm, a candle is extinguished.
The custom of gradually extinguishing the candles dates to the fifth century and symbolizes the waning faith of the apostles and disciples during the final days of Jesus’s earthly life. Each of the candles has significance; 11 of them represent the 11 of the Twelve Apostles, three of them represent the Marys at the tomb and the highest candle represents Christ.
After 14 of the 15 candles have been extinguished, the last candle is hidden to symbolize the burial of Christ. Following this, a noise is made to symbolize the earthquake at the Crucifixion. The Tenebrae service ends with the clergy and congregation leaving the church in silence.
Father Jonathan Norton, parochial vicar at St. Vincent De Paul in Fort Wayne, said that a Tenebrae service is a different prayer experience than what Catholics are used to. “Coming to a Tenebrae service gives us a visual mode of prayer and really acknowledges Good Friday.” The service can also help believers visually enter the darkness and recognize the fullness of Good Friday in preparation for the joy and light of Easter Sunday, he explained.
Several churches throughout the diocese will hold Tenebrae services this week. These include Queen of Angels, Fort Wayne, on Wednesday, at 7 p.m.; St. John the Baptist, Fort Wayne, on Friday at 8:30 p.m.; St. Joseph, South Bend, on Friday at 8:30 p.m.; St. Vincent de Paul, Elkhart, on Friday at 8:30 p.m.; and St. Vincent de Paul, Fort Wayne, on Friday at 9 p.m.
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