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The Holy Week Tradition Of Tenebrae

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As many of our readers know, for at least thirteen centuries, and very probably longer, there has existed in the Roman liturgy a uniquely ceremonial recitation of the offices of Matins and Lauds from Holy Thursday to Good Friday known as Tenebrae (“Darkness”).
The thirteenth-century prelate and liturgist William Durandus of Mende (+1296) observed that during these three days the Church celebrates the “funeral rites” of Christ (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, book 6, chapter 72, n. 2, in A. Davril, OSB, and T.M. Thibodeau, editors, Guillelmi Duranti: Rationale Divinorum Officiorum V-VI, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 140a, Turnhout, Belgium, Brepols Publishers, 1998, p. 336).
It was this perception of the Triduum that has imparted to the office of Tenebrae its solemn and mournful character, wrought by an unfolding drama of sights and sounds — the gradual extinction of light, mingling with Psalms foretelling the Passion of Christ, antiphons and responsories reflecting upon the Lord’s sufferings, and the profound grief of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, all climaxing in a moment of total and apocalyptic darkness.
On Wednesday night of Holy Week last year I had the privilege of attending a truly awesome observance of Tenebrae celebrated according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite at St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Conn., with the church’s Schola under the masterful direction of one of America’s finest church musicians, David Hughes.
The purple veils in the sanctuary, the gradual reduction of light, the prophetic utterances of Jeremiah and the psalmist all converged to lead one’s soul on a journey deep into the sacred realm of the Passion of the Lord. It was while finding myself immersed in one of the sublime polyphonic settings of the responsories that the sudden sound of a Sippy cup crashing to the floor somewhere off in a distant side aisle reminded me that I was still on Earth, and that the church was filled with many homeschooling families taking this all in.
With the issuance of the revised Breviary of 1972, the Liturgy of the Hours, the special ceremonies of Tenebrae vanished from the Breviary and were likewise dropped from the Caeremoniale episcoporum when the postconciliar edition of the latter was published in 1985. Particularly unfortunate was the total deletion of the Lamentations of Jeremiah from the Triduum rites of the Divine Office. Yet the Tenebrae tradition lingered on in just enough places as an unofficial addendum to the morning offices of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday that not only was it preserved but it began to stage a gradual comeback.
In my own Archdiocese of New York, the observances of Tenebrae were preserved in the Holy Week liturgy of the archdiocesan seminary (St. Joseph’s Seminary), whence it has spread to a significant number of parishes. The restoration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 has further accelerated the comeback of Tenebrae, for almost all the traditional customs of this office are in the Extraordinary Form’s 1961 Breviarium Romanum.
The withdrawal of light that has given the liturgy of Tenebrae its very name may indeed be its most ancient known feature — in the sixth century St. Gregory of Tours (+594) speaks of a monastic celebration of the night office of Good Friday in total darkness. The earliest detailed accounts of Tenebrae date from the eighth century, wherein we begin to find references to the recitation of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
Eleventh-century monastic sources are the earliest to speak of the candle stand that has become the visual symbol of Tenebrae, known as the hearse or Tenebrario, most commonly triangular in form, with anywhere from five to seventy-two candles, but with fifteen lights becoming the norm in the Breviarium Romanum of 1568.
The ceremonial extinction of these candles as the night offices of Matins and Lauds progress, described in an eleventh-century customary of St. Paul’s Monastery in Rome, has remained essentially the same for at least a thousand years:
“…just as many candles should be lit as are the psalms to be assigned…the hebdomadarian [the priest leading the divine office for the week] should begin the antiphon, Zeal for thy house has consumed me, and immediately one candle should be extinguished on one side, another thereafter; and thus should it be done in beginning all the psalms” (text in Dom Edmond Martene, De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritibus, Venice: Johannes Baptista Novelli, 1763-1764, book 4, chapter 22, volume 3, p. 124).
Medieval liturgists and theologians were prolific in explaining the rich symbolism of this solemnized diminution of light. The extinction of the candles one by one was seen to represent the desertion of the disciples one by one, or the killing of the prophets over the ages. It was likewise seen as expressing the extinction of joy in the hearts of the disciples wrought by the arrest and death of Christ. The repetition of this rite for three days was interpreted as memorializing the three hours of darkness while Christ hung on the cross, as well as the three days of His entombment.
The one candle left to burn alone at the apex of the Tenebrae hearse has most commonly been explained as a symbol of Christ the Light of the World, an identification underlined by the practice of using a bleached white wax candle for this one light alone, with the other Tenebrae candles being of yellowed, unbleached wax.
We know the Lamentations were already a basic part of Tenebrae by the eighth century; by the thirteenth century, but perhaps much earlier, the singing of each verse, in Latin, would begin with a chant of the first letter of the Hebrew word with which the verse began. This practice, alluding to the fact that in the original Hebrew these first letters of the verses form an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet for chapters one to four of the Lamentations, impart an added sense of solemnity, mystery, and antiquity to the text, an impression heightened by the melismatic manner of singing these letters (i.e., a musically prolonged and elaborated chant of each letter).
On each of the three days of Tenebrae, there are three sets of passages from the Lamentations — Lam. 1:1-5, 6-9 and 10-14 for Holy Thursday, Lam. 2:8-11, 12-15 and 3:1-9 for Good Friday, and Lam. 3:22-30, 4:1-6 and 5:1-11 for Holy Saturday. Each set ends with the verse, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord thy God,” a text freely adopted from Hosea 14:1, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God….”
In the Lamentations Jeremiah presents two principal characters, as it were, one of which is Jerusalem personified as a woman in mourning, she who has become “like a widow” (Lam. 1:1), and the other, “the man who has seen affliction” (Lam. 3:1). Regarding the passages that depict the latter, the seventeenth-century Jesuit exegete Fr. Cornelius a Lapide (+1637) observes:
“In these Lamentations symbolically Jeremiah graphically describes and depicts here the love of the long-suffering Christ and the bitterness of His sorrows in Himself in such a way, that here you would imagine hearing Christ on the Cross lamenting, addressing the lamentation to you; wherefore the Church our Mother both publicly and mournfully sings these Lamentations at the most holy time of the year, indeed Holy Week, and makes use of the holy day of Friday itself, that she may re-present the long-suffering Christ, and move all to compassion, and most efficaciously excite and impel all to repentance of sins, sorrow, earnest confession, and emendation of life” (Fr. Cornelius a Lapide, SJ, Commentaria in Jeremiam Prophetam, Threnos, et Baruch, Antwerp, Martin Nutius, 1621, p. 284).

The Dawn

The verse, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lam. 1:12), applied to Christ, serves as a reminder to all of us who have “passed by” Calvary over the centuries that our Lord suffered more in His Sacred Passion than any man who has ever lived.
Jeremiah’s depiction of Jerusalem in mourning is seen as foreshadowing the grief of Holy Mother Church, “widowed by the absence of her Spouse” and left “desolate, destitute, humiliated, alone” at His death, as explained by the Spanish Franciscan bishop Alvaro Pelayo (+1352) (Aluari Pelagii: De planctu Ecclesiae desideratissimi libri duo et indice copiossimo et marginariis additionibus reces illustrati, Lyons, France, Johann Clein, 1517, fol. 86r-86v).
The Jesuit theologian Fr. Martin del Rio (+1608) adds that the sufferings of Jerusalem as imaged by Jeremiah also prefigure in an allegorical sense the sufferings of the Church at the hands of pagans and heretics (Fr. Martin del Rio, SJ, Commentarius litteralis in Threnos, id est, Lamentationes Jeremiae, prophetae, Lyons, Horace Cardon, 1608, p. 19).
Similarly, the Discalced Carmelite Fr. Dominic of the Most Holy Trinity describes the Lamentations as “the lamentation of the Church Militant, when on account of the sins of the faithful she is vexed by persecutors” (Fr. Dominic of the Most Holy Trinity, Bibliotheca Theologica septem libris distincta, tome 2, Rome, Philip Mary Mancini, 1667, p. 189). Moreover, there are verses that can also be seen as allegorically foreshadowing the grief of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “lamenting the torments and cross of Christ” (ibid.).
At the end of the traditional rite of Tenebrae, following the chanting of the Canticle of Zechariah, the Benedictus, the one remaining lit candle from the hearse is taken and hidden behind the altar, and in total darkness Psalm 51, the Miserere, is sung. The Divine Bridegroom has been taken away and sinful mankind pleads for mercy. Following the closing Collect, a great noise is made in remembrance of Nature’s convulsion upon the death of Christ.
But in the silence afterward the solitary candle returns from behind the altar, like the first light of dawn. Amid all the darkness of our world, no matter how dark, the Light of Christ will return, as the Dawn of Heaven’s eternal day.

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