What is Tenebrae?
The word Tenebrae is Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” It can also be translated as “night” or “death.” The Tenebrae service is an ancient tradition in Christian history that took place on one of the last three days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday. The purpose of this service was to remember the somber events that occurred in Jesus’ life from the exuberant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through the night of Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. Communion is often included in a Tenebrae service, as well.
The most distinctive aspect of the service is the use of a Tenebrae “hearse,” a holder for several lit candles. The flames of these candles are extinguished one by one as Scripture readings are shared to tell the story of Holy Week. This gradual descent into gloom is a representation of Jesus’ increasing sorrow as the events of Passion Week unfolded. After the last verse is read, the last candle is put out, and the room is plunged into darkness.
A loud noise may be sounded in the blackness, such as the violent closing of a book, to represent the closing of Christ’s tomb. At this point, another lit candle, which has been hidden from view, is put at the top of the hearse, symbolizing Christ’s resurrection. The service ends, and the participants are traditionally expected to leave in contemplative silence.
The Bible does not mention Tenebrae, and such a service is therefore not a mandate for the Church. However, this traditional service is still performed by many Catholic parishes, Lutheran churches, and some Orthodox churches. Many contemporary Christian churches will have Good Friday services that harken back to the Tenebrae but with many alterations for their modern congregations.