Tenebrae

Good Friday when I was a little girl.

Tenebrae was the name for the evening service. Our church, newly built, was decorated in primary colors, like everything else in the 1970s, but on Good Friday, everything bright in the church was darkened, dimmed, covered, shadowed. The purple paraments for the penitential season are replaced, this day, with black ones. The warm presence that developed as the sun shined through the stained glass even on the wintriest Sunday mornings, the cheer that enveloped the Wednesday soup suppers after Lenten services, had fled. Good Friday made a warm church cold. The order of services was in a special bulletin, not in either the old hymnal or the new hymnal. That, and the cold winds that often brings the early spring days in Wisconsin to a close, made everything we were doing seem older than the oldest things I knew, older than the oak tree at the border of the churchyard, older than my great-grandmother Anna, born in 1898.

The day when the church seemed the most ancient.

We hustled in. We did not talk. We sat down in the same order as always, little brother, Mom, big sister, Dad on the aisle. If grandma was there, she entered the pew first and sat on the other side of my brother. Ostensibly to keep order, but this way, you discover as a little one, you can snuggle up when you need to, in either direction.

Why is the church dark? Because they tried to kill Jesus. Who would do that? The Pharisees. But they didn’t know that he would rise up in three days, because they didn’t believe he was the son of G-d. Shhh, the service is starting.

The readings are frightening, thundering in the cold sanctuary, the hymns are lugubrious, full of painful suffering. “Go to dark Gethsemane,” Pastor’s favorite Lenten hymn, “… learn from Jesus Christ to die.” (My father grumbles that it’s a Methodist hymn, and too cheery for Good Friday.) We listen and we learn about the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. It is not, after all, the Pharisees who killed Jesus, but us. My favorite hymn, if one can speak of favorites in this context, is “Ah, Holy Jesus, How hast thou offended?” I already know I am guilty, and here’s the proof: “‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

At the start of the service thirteen candles are lit, one each for Jesus and the disciples, and as the service goes on, each time after a Bible reading and a hymn, one of the lights is put out. The church is darker and darker, grandma can’t really see the hymnal any more, but it doesn’t matter. She knows the words already. All the adults know all the words already, and they don’t even need the organ to help them along. But voices are cracking, and both my mother and my grandmother are crying.

At the end, Pastor reads us the Gospel that tells of Jesus’ sufferings, crucifixion, and death. The last candle is extinguished, there is no sacrament left in the church and the eternal light is out. Everything is completely dark and the evening has fallen in the meantime. Pastor slams the large pulpit Bible shut. The scriptures have been fulfilled in our hearing. We all know it is coming, and yet we start up in shock as we hear it.

Consummatum est. The sense that the world was closing down to its very tiniest point.

When the pastor leaves the the altar, the very oldest people drop to their knees and stay to pray, but I wonder why, if Jesus is not there. The creed tells us he is in hell; Grandma tells my little brother, whose eyes are wide, not to worry, soon he will be with his father in heaven.

There is nothing to do now but leave. No buzz. Pastor and the elders do not stand at the door to wish us well. There is nothing to celebrate. We put on our spring jackets, now too light for the evening, and wait; my dad hurries out, his head bent against the wind. At our church the men go out to the cars and drive them up to the entrance to pick up their families. We climb in and go home. Lit, the living room is warmer, but dad sends us straight to bed, with just time for mom to listen to our prayers.

~ by Servetus on April 23, 2011.

12 Responses to “Tenebrae”

  1. Beautiful description!

    Tenebrae can be such a beautiful service. When we’ve had them, they are usually on Thursday evening.

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    • In the church where I grew up we usually had a service for Maundy Thursday, but my family didn’t usually go. I’ll have to ask my mom about why not. Probably because we were there for the last Lenten service on Wednesday of Holy Week, and then Tenebrae, and then Easter Vigil, and sunrise service on Easter Sunday, and then usually the 11 o’clock service with Communion. It might have been a rare instance when she decided we’d had enough church for a particular week …

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  2. Good Friday is symbolic of so many points in life where we have to experience supreme sorrow and pain to fully experience the joy that will come along after.

    One of the most poignant scenes in the film The Passion of the Christ, and in my small opinion it was a film chock full of poignant scenes, was the single tear falling from heaven when Jesus died.

    For those of us who have experienced dark nights of the soul on occasion, servetus’ accurate and compelling description above of the emptiness and utter despair and darkness of that Good Friday, does not come close to losing the sense of G-D in one’s life, even for a time. However, as in Easter, the joy when that connection is restored is indescribable.

    Very moving post on a very emotionally complex day. Peace.

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    • I’ve been glad to see more mainstream protestant churches holding Tenebrae for that reason. It really does highlight the wonder of Resurrection Day.

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    • It was supposed to make us think that we could be forever separated from G-d. It certainly had that effect on my brother and me when we were children.

      Hang in there, Ann Marie. G-d is there.

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  3. We’ve wanted to do a Maundy Thursday and just never gotten around to it. We’re pretty loosey goosey about the dates, but there’s a stupid reason why we had to do Tenebrae on Thursday. I won’t bore you with it. I’m just glad we did it.

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    • well, and there’s that footwashing tradition … I’m actually not sure what my parents’ church did on that occasion. I watched the Queen do the Royal Maundy in Westminster Abbey yesterday afternoon. She distributes a mostly symbolic gift to a group of people who do volunteer work for the church now, instead of washing the feet of beggars, but they still have the traditional nosegays that were instituted to prevent the people who were washing from smelling the stink of the unwashed 🙂 It’s all very majestic.

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  4. Lovely post. You have a novel in you girl and when it comes out I will be the first in line to read it. I hope you are enjoying all the sweet promises Spring has to offer.

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    • that’s really kind, @Rob, but this is just a recollection. I don’t have the inventiveness to write fiction. Hope you’re having a great spring, too.

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  5. […] I wish you well. Tomorrow is Good Friday for the Christians, a commemoration that also calls particular memories to mind for me. To my many Christian friends, I wish a blessed, contemplative triduum and joyous Easter or […]

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  6. […] in a very religious family. Her mother taught her to pray. She loved G-d and she loved her church. Church was one of the warmest places she knew. And she wanted to be a […]

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  7. […] Tenebrae when I was a girl is what I always think of on Good Friday. And then there was 2010. […]

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