Q. Could you please explain for me a Lenten ceremony called “Tenebrae”?
A. “Tenebrae” is a Latin word, carried over directly into English, and simply means “darkness.” In Latin it is a plural noun that can be understood as singular; it designates “shades” put together to form darkness or, by inference, evening. Both Virgil and Cicero used it in this sense.
The ceremony termed “Tenebrae” is actually a liturgical exercise combining the two components of the Divine Office: Matins and Lauds, chanted and recited during Holy Week, in darkness. The ceremony dates from early medieval times
Prior to the liturgical reforms for the Easter Triduum under Pope Pius XII (1955), Tenebrae was scheduled for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. While a college seminarian in 1945 and 1946, we used to board special buses for transportation from St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield (St. Thomas offered two years of college there, prior to assignment out of state for the last two years in philosophy and, of course, the four graduate years of theology) to the original Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford to lead an overflowing congregation in the Tenebrae (Latin) chants and Biblical readings. Among the crowds, many had traveled far, often at considerable inconvenience.
With Pope Pius XII’s liturgical revisions, especially the Evening Mass of the Last Supper and the Easter Vigil, the occasion and time for Tenebrae had to be modified. In a parish situation today, for example, Tenebrae might only occur once, given the convenience of parishioners in general. The ceremony is still beloved and popular, albeit not mandatory. Here, in the Archdiocese of Hartford, it has been scheduled this year for Good Friday evening.
The traditional ceremony for Tenebrae called for a triangular 16-candle candlestick. At the end of each Psalm one of the candles is extinguished, but the one at the summit is left burning. During the canticle known as the Benedictus (always part of Lauds), the six candles on the high altar are also extinguished, one by one, alternating from side to side, and timed for every second verse.
The antiphon, beginning Traditor (“Traitor,” a reference to Judas), then signals that the very last candle, at the summit, symbolizing Christ the Light of the World, be removed from its position and hidden within the darkness behind the altar.
When the antiphon (i.e., thematic introduction) of the Benedictus is repeated after the Benedictus, all kneel for the haunting Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem… Next comes the Our Father; then the penitential Miserere Psalm and a closing oration.
Dramatically, then, a loud knocking (caused by the sudden closing of the chant rituals) occurs – the last candle having been hidden behind the altar. The loud noise has been interpreted as the earth’s trembling at the moment of Jesus’ death.
Details for the ceremony before Pius XII’s modifications can be found in a volume which most priests know well; the Liber Usualis. Again, however, modifications are commonly implemented. As a general rule, moreover, Tenebrae is an unforgettable liturgical service, especially rewarding in Lenten observance.