Tenebrae… What on Earth is It???

In 587 BC, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. The temple had been first described to Moses. King David had conquered Jerusalem and made the preparations for its construction. Solomon, the wisest of the kings, had completed it within the fleeting golden age of his reign. Its fame spread throughout the world, so that people from as far as Ethiopia came on pilgrimage, bringing back with them the faith of the Jews. King after king dishonored the temple, abusing its sacrifices and forgetting proper Jewish worship. Finally, the boy-king Josiah came to power. Holy and righteous, he reestablished the temple cult and preserved the Torah. He charged into battle against the Egyptians at Meggido, and at the age of 33 fell to their archers.

Every king that followed failed the nation, and the nation slipped back into its sins. The prophet Jeremiah, who had begun his ministry at the time of Josiah, cried out in vain for the repentance of the nation. Finally, Jerusalem was invaded and conquered. When they rose up again, they were again invaded. This time, the temple was destroyed.

Jeremiah, sitting among the rubble of the temple mount, saw the dejection of Israel. He had seen its height under Josiah, and now its total shame under the thumb of the Babylonians. According to legend, he cried out to God in five hymns of lamentation, which became the new liturgy performed on the Temple Mount: the book of Lamentations.

The book of Lamentations is almost entirely absent from the readings during Sunday and Daily Mass. The material is heart-wrenchingly and at times sickening. Jerusalem is compared to an abandoned adulterer, a betrayed friend, a hunted animal. Jeremiah eats gravel and is even forced to vomit. It is arguably one of the most painful books in scripture. Therefore, it is left out of the readings. There is one exception: the service of Tenebrae.

Tenebrae is a combination of the Offices of Matins and Lauds for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week. The Office is the set of prayers prayed every day by priests, religious, and many lay people, designed by the church to be prayed throughout the day. Matins is the early morning service (normally sung at 3 or 4 AM) that contains readings from throughout the Bible. The office of Lauds (6 AM), like the other offices, consists entirely of psalms and canticles. On these three days, Matins reads through the Lamentations of Jeremiah as an image for the sufferings of Christ. Over time, it became a tradition for lay people to come to monasteries, priories, and eventually churches to participate on one night of Holy Week in the prayers of the religious.

We too have lost our King at the young age of 33 to a shower of the Enemies’ arrows. We have seen the affliction and bitterness in the world around us. We have suffered under the unjust, and cried out to God because of it. The sufferings in Chapter 3 of Jeremiah “I am the man who has suffered under the rod of His wrath” is the central image that unites Christ’s sufferings with the sufferings of man. As Hebrews says, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour: that, through the grace of God, he might taste death for all.”

As each reading is given, one of the candles on the hearse (a large triangular candelabra) are put out, and the lights are dimmed. We enter into the tomb with Christ, into “darkness without any light.” As the final lights turn off, and we are shrouded in darkness, a loud rumble begins. The congregation bangs and rattles the pews, as Christ in Hell breaks down the bars of Hell and rises victorious with all the faithful in His hands. The battle is not yet over, and there is no celebration. As a sign of the victory to be accomplished, one candle, still lit, is hidden behind the altar, like Christ in the tomb.

The service serves as a summary of all the Triduum to come, playing out the drama from Wednesday to Sunday’s vigil step by step. Its spirituality rests on the final verse of Lamentations, “restore us for Your sake O Lord, and we will be restored! Renew our days as of old! Or have You utterly forsaken us? Are you exceedingly angry with us?” To which God responds with a single Word, born, crucified, and risen.


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