The Passion of the Tenebrae Service

Tenebrae, Good Friday service, Jesus Crucifixion, Easter, candlelight service, Holy Week, God, Good Friday music and readings

Perhaps we did replay holy week when we entered the  sanctuary at dusk on Good Friday for the Tenebrae service.

. We waved to friends, found a pew and settled down for a moment of calm. It was surprisingly quiet. The picture of Jesus wearing a bloody crown of thorns on the bulletin cover suggested this was a solemn night, but until we began, I had no idea what  Tenebrae meant.

From the Latin for shadows or darkness, Tenebrae is an ancient service that underscores the solemnity of Jesus’ last day on earth as a man. The pastors wore black robes, no colorful stoles, and the lighting was turned down low. The altar area had been stripped to the bare wood the night before and the tall cross that looms on the wall was shrouded in black. Seven candles were lit on the altar and the hushed service began.

There are different ways of handling the Tenebrae, but it usually involves candles lit in a darkened church. The officiant reads passages of Scripture about Jesus, a hymn is sung, one-by-one the sober acolyte extinguishes the candles until the service ends in total darkness.

In our Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, we use the grand hymns of the faith and they take us directly to the melancholy emotions of Good Friday. We began with the soul-haunting spiritual “Were You There when they crucified my Lord . . . sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”  That’s how it felt.

The readings start with Jesus’ betrayal at the last supper (Matthew 26:20-25), “the shadow of betrayal,” and proceed through the high points of his last dreadful 24-hours, ending at the tomb.

Go to Dark Gethsemane tells us “all who feel the tempter’s power, Your Redeemer’s conflict see. Watch with him one bitter hour, Turn not from his griefs away, Learn from Jesus Christ to pray.”

One candle was snuffed out.

The lack of one candle’s faint glow hardly made a difference, just a softening of the light. We could still follow the words in our bulletin as we moved through several more passages of Scripture.

The Shadow of Desertion (Matthew 26:30-35) where Peter vows to stay with Jesus no matter what will come. We sang a hymn along the lines of “Jesus, I Will Ponder Now on Your holy passion. With your Spirit me endow For such meditation Grant that I in love and faith May the image cherish Of your suffering pain, and death That I may not perish.”

The second candle, too, didn’t shed a lot of light but as the service intensified, the room felt darker, heavier, grimmer.

The Darkness of Praying Alone (Luke  22: 39-46). His disciples asleep, Jesus pleads with his Father to take the cup away–if that is His will. “O Darkest Woe! Tears, overflow! What heavy grief we carry! God the Father’s Only Son In a grave lies buried.”

The next flame was quashed.

The Shadow of Accusation (Mark 14: 43-63 ) Judas leads the Roman guards to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and he is hauled before the rulers. It was noticeably darker in the church now as we sang a hymn like “O Dearest Jesus, What Law Have You Broken? That such sharp sentence should on you be spoken? Of what great crime have you to make confession, what dark transgression?”

Another candle extinguished.

The Darkness of Crucifixion (Matthew 27: 27-38) talks about the Son of God hanging on the cross. Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted describes Jesus–“see him dying on the tree. This is Christ, by man rejected; Here my soul, your Savior see. He’s the long expected prophet, David’s son, yet David’s Lord. Proofs I see sufficient of it: He’s the true and faithful Word.”

The gravity of what we heard was underscored by the dying of another candle.

The Shadow of Death ( Luke 23: 44-49) tells of Jesus’ anguished cry of triumphant: “it is finished,” and Bach’s music written 450 years ago underscores the agony:” O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, with grief and shame weighed down, Now scornfully surrounded With thorns, your only crown. O sacred head, what glory And bliss did once combine, Though now despised and gory, I joy to call you mind.”

With this candle’s flame snuffed, the sanctuary was almost black.

And The Darkness of the Tomb (John 19: 38-42) ended the service by marking when Jesus was laid into the tomb. The final candle was blown out. Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs?

The church fell into total darkness and silence save for the rustle of the pastors carrying the still lit Christ Candle from the sanctuary to symbolize the death of Christ–Jesus leaving the earth. The back door closed softly behind them and suddenly, seemingly out of nothing, came a dramatic


We flinched from the horror of the stone rolled shut before Jesus’ tomb.

One last song, a smidgen of hope: There is a Redeemer.

We exited in silence, trembling from the grim majesty of what we  witnessed. The Son of God, died on a cross, laid in a tomb.

It is finished.

Sin and death reign no more.

And Easter Sunday morn is just around the corner.

Thanks be to God.


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1 Comment

  1. Julie Surface Johnson

     /  April 6, 2012

    Michelle, thank you for this! I love the traditions of the Church, grew up with them. Sadly, in many of the evangelical services, such traditions are missing. But since our move, we’ll be attending a new church tonight. I’m hopeful.


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