TENEBRAE is Latin for shadows or darkness, and Tenebrae is the apt name for a dramatic celebration of Matins and Lauds that used to be commonly held throughout the Western Church during the last days of Holy Week. Thank goodness, Tenebrae is still publicly celebrated in some places. For one example, the following announcement is from the St. Ann Choir of Palo Alto, California, which sings a Tenebrae service every year on the Wednesday of Holy Week.
TENEBRAE, Wednesday April 16, 2014, 8:00 p.m. Anticipated Matins and Lauds of Holy Thursday. Lamentations of Jeremiah by Victoria. St. Ann Chapel, 541 Melville Ave. (at Tasso) Palo Alto, 94301.
When I used to sing with the St. Ann Choir. I became acquainted with Tenebrae and learned to love it, and now that I sing with another choir that doesn’t sing at a Tenebrae service, I try very hard to keep on attending the St. Ann choir’s Tenebrae every year as a member of the congregation. The funereal singing of mournful psalms, the haunting polyphonic Lamentations of Jeremiah by Renaissance composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), and the dramatic diminishment of the light and the growth of darkness during the ceremony that is enacted during the service, all set the tone for the last three days of Holy Week, when the Church solemnly meditates on Christ’s Passion, death, and burial.
Matins and Lauds, and Anticipation
Some definitions may be helpful. Matins and Lauds are first two liturgical “hours” in the traditional Divine Office from the Roman Breviary (Breviarum Romanum) that are “sung” (chanted or prayed) each day. Matins used to be sung after midnight and Lauds was sung in the morning, but both of these hours began generally to be “anticipated” the evening before. The 1962 rubrics said that Tenebrae should not be anticipated, but because this change made public Tenebrae services unlikely, it is often ignored.
The St. Ann choir sings a shortened version of the two liturgical hours. As Stanford Professor William P. Mahrt, the director of the St. Ann Choir explained, “We use an order that has been customary in parishes: we sing one Nocturn of Matins and then Lauds.”
Lamentations of Jeremiah
The Lamentations of Jeremiah that are sung during Tenebrae are songs of lament composed by the prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. They begin:
“And it came to pass, after Israel was carried into captivity, and Jerusalem was desolate, that Jeremias the prophet sat weeping, and mourned with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and with a sorrowful mind, sighing and moaning, he said.”
The destruction of Jerusalem was similar in the enormity of its importance to the Jews as the destruction of Troy was for the Trojans and the destruction of Carthage was for the Carthaginians, but it was even more of a blow to the Jews because their beloved temple was destroyed and most of them were taken into captivity.
The Lamentations have received a peculiar distinction in the Liturgy of the Church in the Office of Passion Week. If Christ Himself designated His death as the destruction of a temple, “he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21), then the Church surely has a right to pour out her grief over His death in those Lamentations which were sung over the ruins of the temple destroyed by the sins of the nation.” “Jeremias.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Link.
Fifteen Candles and Then There Was One
The service begins with fifteen candles lit on a large candelabrum, which is called a hearse. After the choir sings each Psalm and Lamentation, one candle is extinguished, until only one candle is left burning.
The remaining lighted candle is then hidden. After a pause, anyone in the church who wishes to participate can help create the “strepitus,” which is a loud noise made by banging on the pews with books or hands. As Prof. Mahrt, noted, “This is the only time in this liturgy in which a noise that is not musical is made.” After the strepitus, the candle is brought back, and the service comes to an end.
Prof. Mahrt wrote, “The service represents symbolically the death of Christ, the light, in the decrease of lighted candles and the disappearance of the last candle; the strepitus represents the chaos of His death; the return of the candle, His ultimate Resurrection.”
Without a doubt, the Tenebrae service of solemn music with its dramatic interplay of darkness and light is an evocative and moving way to prepare for the commemoration of the events of the Triduum, the last three days of Christ’s life during Holy Week.
From Dom Prosper Gueranger’s commentary on Tenebrae from The Liturgical Year Volume 6: “There is an impressive ceremony peculiar to this Office which tends to perpetuate its name. There is placed in the sanctuary, near the altar, a large triangular candlestick, holding fifteen candles. … At the end of each psalm or canticle, one of these fifteen candles is extinguished; but the one which is placed at the top of the triangle is left lighted. … Then the master of ceremonies takes the lighted candle from the triangle, and holds it upon the altar, on the epistle side, while the choir repeats the antiphon after the canticle: after which he hides it behind the altar during the recitation of the Miserere and the prayer which follows the psalm. As soon as this prayer is finished, a noise is made with the seats of the stalls in the choir, which continues until the candle is brought from behind the altar, and shows, by its light, that the Office of Tenebrae is over.
“Let us now learn the meaning of these ceremonies. The glory of the Son of God was obscured and, so to say, eclipsed, by the ignominies He endured during His Passion. He, the Light of the world, powerful in word and work, Who but a few days ago was proclaimed King by the citizens of Jerusalem, is now robbed of all his honors. He is, says Isaias, the Man of sorrows, a leper (Isaias 53:3,4). He is, says the royal prophet, a worm of the earth, and no man (Psalm 21:7). He is, as He says of himself, an object of shame even to his own disciples, for they are all scandalized in him (Mark 14:27) and abandon Him; yea, even Peter protests that he never knew Him. This desertion on the part of His apostles and disciples is expressed by the candles being extinguished, one after the other, not only on the triangle, but on the altar itself. But Jesus, our Light, though despised and hidden, is not extinguished. This is signified by the candle which is momentarily placed on the altar; it symbolizes our Redeemer suffering and dying on Calvary. In order to express His burial, the candle is hidden behind the altar; its light disappears. A confused noise is heard in the house of God, where all is now darkness. This noise and gloom express the convulsions of nature when Jesus expired on the cross: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the dead came forth from their tombs. But the candle suddenly reappears; its light is as fair as ever. The noise is hushed, and homage is paid to the Conqueror of death.”