Mormon Lectionary Project: Tenebrae


In the Anglican tradition, a service called Tenebrae is often celebrated on Wednesday in Holy Week. According to the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services,

Apart from the chant of the Lamentations (in which each verse is introduced by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the most conspicuous feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until only a single candle, considered a symbol of our Lord, remains. Toward the end of the service this candle is hidden, typifying the apparent victory of the forces of evil. At the very end, a loud noise is made, symbolizing the earthquake at the time of the resurrection (Matthew 28:2), the hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light all depart in silence.

It is the most mournful of all Christian worship I have ever experienced–many years, I don’t attend or sing in the choir, for fear of pitching myself from my native melancholy into the realm of real despair. You might think that knowing perfectly well that Easter will be here in just a few days would make it easy to endure an hour of ritual sadness, but somehow it doesn’t. I’ve sometimes thought that this meant simply that my faith is weak, that I don’t, in the Mormon vernacular, “have a testimony” of Christ’s resurrection. But I think I do–I know it as surely as I know anything (which, if I’m honest, is not very surely at all; one of my signal flaws (or virtues, I suppose) is an epistemic wobbliness that makes it easy for me to suppose that everything I know might (and probably will) turn out to be completely wrong). It just doesn’t help sometimes.

I remember the first time I attended an LDS funeral for a child. Many people spoke of the comfort that knowledge of the Plan of Salvation brings, suggested that the family’s pain would be eased by their testimony that they would see their loved daughter again. My reaction, which shocked me as I sat with my six-month-old firstborn child on my lap, was fury. Full-on, blinding, have-to-force-myself-not-to-scream rage. I knew, suddenly, that if I were sitting in the grief-laden front pew of that service, no promise any God could make about any heaven or eternity would be any comfort at all. I wondered if, perhaps, that is why we are commanded to “mourn with them that mourn” as well as to “comfort those in need of comfort”–there is a time when no comfort will suffice, no light can penetrate the darkness.

Even Jesus, it seems, experienced that utter darkness, despite (surely) knowing what would follow, he cries out on the cross, all comfort and hope lost, even the sense of God’s presence inexplicably withdrawn for one protracted and unbearable moment. We humans can bear it even less than he did–in the ritual recreation of the Tenebrae service, the light is only hidden, not extinguished, and it reappears immediately after the terror of the earthquake, the victory of the forces of evil only “apparent.”

I wonder, actually, if this is one of the places where Mormons might contribute something important to the Christian liturgy: the account in III Nephi is one of the most vivid descriptions I know of true and total darkness:

And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness;And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all;And there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land.

And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and ahowling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them.

After the terrible destruction wrought by storms and earthquakes and fire, the voice of the Lord speaks to the people from heaven, explaining that this was the prophesied destruction of the impenitent, but repeating tenderly that, like a mother hen who gathers her chicks to protect and save and nourish them, God will embrace them if only they will allow it:

O ye house of Israel whom I have aspared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and breturn unto me with full purpose of cheart.

Surely, hearing the actual voice of the Lord from heaven would be of some comfort–there could be almost no surer knowledge of God’s love than hearing this declaration would impart. And yet

… it came to pass that after the people had heard these words, behold, they began to weep and howl aagain because of the loss of their kindred and friends. And it came to pass that thus did the three days pass away.

Knowledge is not necessarily and not immediately comforting. Darkness is real, and when we are in its thrall, we will, with the Psalmist, believe that

the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.

I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me.

I have grown weary with my crying;
my throat is inflamed;
my eyes have failed from looking for my God.

It turns out, actually, that we don’t overcome darkness by heroic acts of belief. We may really feel that we cannot look anymore for God–that our eyes have failed. The light always comes, but we cannot make it appear by force of will. We can forgive ourselves (and others) those moments of not believing what we know, if only we learn the desperate patience of those that sit in darkness.


  1. Great post! I think this is a rich tradition, even if it can trigger melancholy (though hopefully not despair!). It throws Christ as the light of the world into stark relief, as does the episode in the Book of Mormon that you highlight.

  2. And we might as well link to your previous reflections on Tenebrae:

    If for no other reason than that you link to Paul Celan reading his “Tenebrae” and the translation, not to mention the music.

  3. Regarding attending the LDS funeral: “Many people spoke of the comfort that knowledge of the Plan of Salvation brings, suggested that the family’s pain would be eased by their testimony that they would see their loved daughter again. My reaction, which shocked me as I sat with my six-month-old firstborn child on my lap, was fury. Full-on, blinding, have-to-force-myself-not-to-scream rage.”

    Thanks for that quote. And thanks for this interesting post. I think I’ve let the impact of too many Good Friday services be obscured by the happy Easter comin’ round the corner.

  4. Swisster says:

    I once attended a tenebrae service, and your thoughts help me make sense of it now. I teach seminary to 2 kids in my home, and Good Friday’s lesson is 3 Nephi 8-10. I think I’m going to be lighting and extinguishing some candles.

  5. “It turns out, actually, that we don’t overcome darkness by heroic acts of belief. . . . The light always comes, but we cannot make it appear by force of will.”
    So true, and so important. Both “don’t overcome” and “cannot make it appear” AND “the light always comes”.

    In my limited experience with St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Parish, in Chicago, the Good Friday service was something like this. Very somber, no Mass, no organ, the church and altar stripped, and by the end of the service all lights extinguished.

  6. Although I have always resonated with the importance of appropriate solemnity and sadness in connection with the suffering and death of Jesus, I have always delayed it until later on Thursday and then on Good Friday itself. Celebrating the Tenebrae on Wednesday always seemed too early for me. Although I have not doubt that Jesus was already anticipating, and to some extent even dreading, what lay ahead, there is something beautiful to recount on Wednesday instead, one last act of love as embodied by the anointing of Jesus by the unnamed woman in Mark and Matthew. So in our family, we focus on that, recognizing that it is framed and put into high contrast by the conspiracy of the Jerusalem leadership and then Judas’ pact with them. In our family we sing of love and honor the woman who anointed Jesus by sharing our experiences with women of Christ who planted the seed of faith in our hearts (see my blog post at As we move from the Last Supper to Gethsemane, then I get sad . . . and grateful. I listen to Bach’s Passions of Matthew and John, often fast, wear dark colors, and attend the temple but with more solemnity than usual looking forward with particular poignancy to portions of the ceremony that reference the crucifixion. Then with our final Holy Week devotional later on Good Friday we put out the candles in our Easter wreath, kind of a mini, home tenebrae if you will, until we light our white Easter candle Sunday morning.

  7. I have never attended a Tenebrae service but will need to do that next year. Thank you for these reflections.

  8. melodynew says:

    I’ve been sad all week. Everything I write is mournful. Thank you for this. Amen to everything you said, Kristine. And, as always, thank you for the music. I needed it today.

    Maybe, like Christ’s own disciples and like the people in darkness for three days, on a deep level, we don’t or can’t really “get it.” Even with everything He said. Even with all we learn from holy writ and from our own inner witness of his existence, we are still bound to this world. We are mortal. And the thing we know, the thing we see with our own eyes (sitting in the pews, with a small casket up front) is death. We know this in our bones. We know it in our gut. It is a literal assault to the spirit and yet, it is what we have here and now.

    That other thing – the candle whose extinguished flame ignites itself – well, I don’t know what to say about that, except, like you, I believe.

  9. We sang a great Tenebrae last night, and missed you Kristine.

  10. I’m late getting to this, Kristine, but you’ve provided something important and meaningful. Thank you. I needed this as I head into the thick darkness of this week. The music is an achingly lovely accompaniment.