Wednesday in Holy Week (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. Shawn H says:

    Thank you. This is truly beautiful

  2. Mark B. says:

    Thank you, Kristine.

  3. I’m glad we added this service at CCC, it’s now one of my favorites. Looking forward to singing it tonight.

  4. Christopher J. says:

    I needed this today. Thanks, Kristine.

  5. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Thanks for that luminous meditation–A BLESSING!

  6. I love de Victoria. His Tenebrae album on Spotify is terrific and his rendition of O Magnum Mysterium (Chanticleer) is a favorite.

  7. Thanks Kristine, that was comforting.

  8. I went to my first Tenebrae service this year, although it was definitely much longer than an hour. I filmed it because it is one of the few services that the stained glass windows, which I am doing a documentary on, are covered. It is a church in Alaska, built by rough people who still found God. Ministers who know how to carve a moose and dry salmon are the only ones who stay long.

    I am glad I read this after I went to the service. I might have missed the music if I had expected it. Instead there was a simplicity to the unity of our voice, mostly speaking together, occasionally part of the group chanting. More than anything, it is a way to have some darkness and contemplation, in a part of the world that has little of that now, and will have none in another month or so. There is something disconcerting when you leave the dark chapel for the brightness of a 9 pm sky that is not yet turning towards sunset, to give the service of darkness a whole new depth.

%d bloggers like this: