Tenebrae

On Thursday I went to my first Tenebrae service.

It’s something my church does every year, but it’s the first time I’ve actually gone to one.  I missed it last year.

For those that don’t know, “Tenebrae” is the Latin word for “shadows”, and the Tenebrae service is built around the idea of darkness.

It’s traditionally performed on Good Friday (though our church tends to do it on Maundy Thursday) and it explores the sufferings of Christ on the cross to the accompaniment of a growing darkness: beginning in light, gradually all the lights are extinguished until the very end, when the last lights of all go out and the service ends in complete shadow.

I have to admit that I approached the whole thing with deep misgivings about the concept, and actually seeing it done has done little to shift those. I know it’s a Good Friday service and is never done outside of the context of Easter Sunday and the Resurrection, but to me there seems something fundamentally wrong with the idea of taking believers into darkness and death, and then leaving them there.

I guess the idea is to identify with the disciples. On that first Good Friday they really thought it was the end. The Master had been crucified. Darkness reigned. Who knew if they would come for them next? Even the sky turned black.

But that was then, this is now. The early church never seems to have focused so exclusively on the Cross in the way we sometimes seem to. Paul’s preaching in Athens, for example, was “proclaiming the Good News about Jesus and the resurrection“. He used the word “resurrection” so much that people thought he was proclaiming two gods: a male one called Jesus and a female one called Anastasis! It’s the empty tomb, not the cross, that was supposed to be the defining symbol of Christianity. Without the Resurrection, the cross is just a meaningless tragedy.

The Tenebrae service just seems to be on the wrong side of the Resurrection for servants of the Risen Lord, even for the celebration of His death.

And that’s the thing. We celebrate His death, because it bought our freedom from sin, and the reason we can celebrate is that Friday was not the end of the events of Easter, but the beginning. Easter Sunday reaches back and colours all of Friday, so that we can genuinely call it “Good”.

On the other hand, I can sort of see some point to it. We have become so accustomed to instant solutions, quick fixes and the hour-and-a-half-max resolution of a movie’s crisis that sometimes we forget that real life isn’t always like that. Sometimes sorrow endures for a night and more. Grief reigns for a time. It can be good for us to be reminded of that.

But is Tenebrae the way to do it?

I personally have my doubts. For me, it’s a fundamentally inverted idea for a worship service. We don’t serve a dead Teacher, but a risen Saviour. We don’t commemorate or mourn His death; we celebrate it, because the Resurrection proves it was purposeful and effective in providing atonement.

For me at least, the Tenebrae service runs at odds with this idea.

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