Tenebrae Service and Good Friday

tenebraeWe observe Good Friday every year with the dramatic Tenebrae service.

This is a repost because the service is so meaningful to me and others.

Here is how we experienced the Tenebrae service several years ago.

From the Latin for shadows or darkness, Tenebrae is an ancient service that underscores the solemnity of Jesus’s last day on earth as a man.

Tenebrae services usually involve candles lit in a darkened church. The officiant reads passages of Scripture about Jesus and a hymn is sung, as one-by-one the sober acolyte extinguishes the candles until the service ends in total darkness.

As writer Carolyn Weber recounts about Tenebrae, “those of faith will extinguish candles, rather than light them, in symbolic movement toward crucifixion.”

That Good Friday the pastors wore black robes, no colorful stoles, and the lighting was turned down low. The altar had been stripped to bare wood the night before (Maundy Thursday) and the shrouded cross on the wall loomed black. Seven candles were lit on the altar and the hushed service began.

In our Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, we use the grand hymns of the faith to experience Good Friday’s melancholy emotions. 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 my soul felt: trembling


By Ruiz Anglada (Wikipedia Commons)

Click to Tweet

The readings began with Jesus’s experience 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 “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 light. We still could read the words in our bulletin as we moved through several more passages of Scripture.

The Shadow of Desertion (Matthew 26:30-35) marked Peter’s vow 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) came next. His disciples asleep, Jesus pleaded with his Father to take the cup away–if that was 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.

In The Shadow of Accusation (Mark 14: 43-63 ) Judas led the Roman guards to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene and they hauled Jesus to 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?”

Crucifixion in Black and White; TEnebrae

Crucifixion in Black and White by Peter Reynosa

Another candle extinguished.

The Darkness of Cruxifiction (Matthew 27: 27-38) reflected on the Son of God hanging on the cross. Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted described 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  was underscored by another candle’s death. Click to Tweet

The Shadow of Death ( Luke 23: 44-49) told of Jesus’ anguished cry of triumphant: “it is finished,” and Bach’s music written 450 years ago underscored 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 sat in near-blackness.

The Darkness of the Tomb (John 19: 38-42) ended the service by marking the moment Jesus was laid in 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 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 at the sound of the stone rolled shut on Jesus’s 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.

But Easter Sunday morn is just around the corner.

Thanks be to God.

How do you experience Good Friday?


What is a tenebrae service? Click to Tweet

What are the elements of a tenebrae service?  Click to Tweet

Remember the sacred on Good Friday’s Tenebrae Click to Tweet

Leave a comment


  1. Linda Trapp

     /  April 20, 2017

    We did this service of darkness in tracy, ca. But we had a cross was 8 inches by 8 inches it was 12 feet long and the cross beam was 6 feet long we drove metal tent steaks into the wood and put a black shorud over the beam and raised it up everyone left in silence have you ever saw this I Don’t know where we got it from.

    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 20, 2017

      Our church raised a shroud to cover a cross until two years ago when we put up a screen. This year, we had a standing cross and the pastor and acolyte together covered it.

      Dramatic and poignant either way.


Thoughts? Reactions? Lurker?

%d bloggers like this: