Tenebrae is an ancient Holy Week service celebrated on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae, a latin word, means darkness, but the 15 lighted candles at the heart of this service say that darkness never has its way. The 15 candles stand for Jesus, his twelve disciples and the two disciples who leave Jerusalem for Emmaus after Jesus’ death, having lost all hope.

In the Tenebrae service, the candles are extinguished one by one, as the scriptures are read. His disciples leave him, one betrays him. Jesus goes to death alone, but his light remains burning.

Psalm 69 is read at Tenebrae on Holy Thursday:

“I have become an outcast to my brothers,
a stranger to my mother’s sons,
because zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.”

On Holy Thursday Jesus leaves Bethany with his disciples to celebrate the Passover feast in the evening in an upper room in Jerusalem near the temple. At the table he tells them their faith will be shaken and they will leave him.

The Tenebrae readings tell us  Jesus is our great high priest whose love never fails:

“We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
(Hebrews 4, 14-16)

These days of Holy Week we approach “the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for timely help.”

A final reading on Holy Thursday from an Easter homily by St. Melito of Sardis reminds us: “He is the one who brought us out of darkness into light, out of slavery into freedom, out of death into life, and made us a people chosen to be his own. He is the Passover which is our salvation.”

We celebrated Tenebrae  Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday at Immaculate Conception Monastery in Jamaica, New York.

I haven’t found much on the history of Tenebrae, except indications that the prayer began in monastic circles early on. My guess is that it developed from a pastoral need. During the days of Holy Week more people must have come to monasteries to pray as  work was somewhat lessened–unlike our time when we work, feast days or not. Did the monks decide to make some accomodation to their daily office for their visitors?  

The celebration has candles, extinguished as the psalms and other scriptures are read. Everyone understands candles. The psalms are favored sources for understanding the mystery of the passion and resurrection of Jesus in monastic prayer, but they’re not easily appreciated. 

The psalm prayers and captions from St. Augustine and other saints in the church’s morning and evening prayer today are meant to help people appreciate their Christian meaning. 

So can Tenebrae still be a creative prayer form during Holy Week?  I think so. 

4 thoughts on “Tenebrae

  1. Berta

    Thank you Fr Victor for the explanation of those 15 candles. What a beautiful ceremony. A happy Easter for all of you in the monastery. You are loved!!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s