The Good Friday Passion of Tenebrae

The Tenebrae service is our favorite service during Lent at our Lutheran church.

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.

The solemn, sober service takes place on Good Friday.

Tenebrae services usually involve candles lit in a darkened church.

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

At our Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, the pastors wear black robes. The cross is shrouded in dense black, the altar stripped to bare wood from the Maudy Thursday service the night before. Seven lit candles sit on the altar.

The officiant reads passages of Scripture about Jesus and a hymn is sung, as one-by-one the acolyte extinguishes  candles until the service ends in total darkness.

We sing the grand hymns of the faith to experience Good Friday’s melancholy emotions.

We begin with the haunting spiritual “Were You There when they crucified my Lord.”

My soul trembles as we move through a veritable “stations of the cross,” to the anguished shutting of the tomb.


Judas’ Kiss by Dore (Wikipedia)

The readings and the music

The readings begin with Jesus’s experience at the last supper (Matthew 26:20-25), “the Shadow of betrayal.

We sing Go to Dark Gethsemane:

“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.”

The acolyte snuffs out the first candle..

The lack of one candle hardly make a difference.

The Shadow of Desertion (Matthew 26:30-35) marked Peter’s vow to stay with Jesus no matter what.

 “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 didn’t change the light either, but as the service intensified, the room felt darker, heavier, grimmer.

The Darkness of Praying Alone (Luke 22: 39-46). 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 acolyte quashes another flame.

Tenebrae goes darker

In The Shadow of Accusation (Mark 14: 43-63 ) Judas led the Roman guards to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane 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?

Another candle is extinguished.


Crucifixion by Dore (Wikipedia)

The Darkness of Crucifixion (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.”

Another candle’s death underscores the gravity of Jesus’ death.

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 underscores the agony: “  O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.

After this candle is snuffed, the sanctuary sits in near-blackness.

The Darkness of the Tomb (John 19: 38-42) ends the service by marking the moment Jesus was laid in the tomb. One last candle extinguished ends with Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs?

The pastors carry out of the church the still lit Christ Candle from the sanctuary to symbolize the death of Christ–Jesus leaving the earth.

After the back door closes softly behind them a dramatic thud rings through the church symbolizes the stone rolled shut on Jesus’s tomb.

Our congregation sings one last song to provide a smidgen of hope: There is a Redeemer.

We’ll exit in silence, trembling from the grim majesty of the service: the Son of God 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

%d bloggers like this: