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A Word About Tenebrae

by pastorjuhl ~ March 22nd, 2010

As we approach Holy Week, we pastors begin to think about the services for the Faithful during the week. One service often seen in Lutheran congregation is the “Tenebrae” service on Good Friday. Tenebrae is the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness”. The Roman Church celebrates Tenebrae in place of Matins and Lauds on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. It is also customary to celebrate Tenebrae the afternoon before the office is usually observed.

Here is a brief comment  from Dom Prosper Gueranger’s commentary on Tenebrae from The Liturgical Year Volume 6.

“There is an impressive ceremony peculiar to this Office which tends to perpetuate its name. There is placed in the sanctuary, near the altar, a large triangular candlestick, holding fifteen candles. These candles, and the six that are on the altar, are of yellow wax, as in the Office for the dead. At the end of each psalm or canticle, one of these fifteen candles is extinguished; but the one which is placed at the top of the triangle is left lighted. During the singing of the Benedictus, at Lauds; the six candles on the altar are also put out. Then the master of ceremonies takes the lighted candle from the triangle, and holds it upon the altar, on the epistle side, while the choir repeats the antiphon after the canticle: after which he hides it behind the altar during the recitation of the Miserere and the prayer which follows the psalm. As soon as this prayer is finished, a noise is made with the seats of the stalls in the choir, which continues until the candle is brought from behind the altar, and shows, by its light, that the Office of Tenebrae is over.”

I recall listening to Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 during Holy Week of 2009 and hearing the choir beat their prayer books against the stalls to make the distinctive noise. Lutherans might recall a slamming or banging of a book, large wooden stick, or a slamming of a door to make the noise.

You may see the rite within this book on Google Books. Scroll down to the appendix beginning on page i.

When I prayed the Daily Office using The Anglican Breviary, I would pray Tenebrae. It’s a long office, but a salutary way to pray during Holy Week.

It would be nice to see a truly evangelical Tenebrae rite. What we have in Lutheran Service Book is a form of Tenebrae, but not the real thing. When I do the LSB rite on Friday night, I call it Vespers rather than Tenebrae. I also do the Chief Divine Service for Good Friday. Readers can go back and forth on offering the Lord’s Supper on Good Friday but I think it to be a salutary practice.

1 Response to A Word About Tenebrae

  1. Allan Tidswell

    Please help! Where can I find what Martin Luther wrote regarding tenebrae and its appropriateness in a protestant church?

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