Tenebrae is a moving descent into the darkest days of the church year. The events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday become framed by Tenebrae, which descends from the light into darkness, and Saturday’s Great Vigil, which ascends out of the darkness into the brilliance of the resurrection. The liturgy of Tenebrae is a merger of the traditional morning prayer hours of Matins and Lauds. Tenebrae is a Latin word signifying “darkness,” “shadows,” and “obscurity.” Structurally, Tenebrae is characterized by the progressive extinguishing of all lights in the church except one candle. A characteristic of this service is that a loud noise is made toward the end of the service.
The appointed psalms, lessons, and prayers form a prolonged contemplation of the events of Jesus’ last days, beginning with the Last Supper and ending with his burial. The realities of betrayal, abandonment, judgment, and death are only slightly relieved by the still obscure hint of resurrection symbolized by the one remaining candle. We become witnesses as pride, jealousy, and hatred appear to defeat goodness and extinguish hope. We can experience anew the victory over the powers of darkness which is so powerfully symbolized by the processing of the Christ Candle at the Great Vigil, when we may truly sing, “The Light of Christ! Thanks be to God!”