As Holy Week looms, Christians around the world look with hopeful eyes and joyful hearts toward the coming of Easter morning.
But before the sun rises on that holiest of holy days, there is darkness. The observation of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday all represent the period of Christ’s arrest, crucifixion and time he lay dead in the tomb.
It is a solemn period that many spend in reflection on Jesus’ pain and sacrifice. And it’s a mood that the Catholic Tenebrae service has captured since its origins in the ninth century. The term “tenebrae” is Latin for “shadows,” and is a mournful, medieval rite that commemorates the period between Christ’s death and resurrection.
For Kate Hamer, choir director at St. Williams Catholic Church on St. Simons Island, the service has always been a powerful one and something that sets the tone for the dark days of Holy Week.
“The ancient Tenebrae dates way back early early years of the church. It is usually done on Holy Thursday evening,” she said. “Light and darkness are a big part of it.”
It begins with a sanctuary drenched in darkness save 15 candles that are placed on Tenebrae “hearse.”
Readers share selections from the Bible and extinguish candles when finished. After each reading, a hymnal or book is traditionally slammed on the end of the pew, an alarming accompaniment to the words detailing the arrest and crucifixion of Christ.
Hamer notes that today choral music also plays an important role in the service. It is something she and her choir have teamed up with other churches to share. They will offer a Tenebrae service at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, which is also Palm Sunday, in the sanctuary of St. William. There will be a short concert of Lenten music followed by the Tenebrae service. It is free and open to all.
“The songs and readings look at it from a very humanistic view,” Hamer said.
“We will have a few songs in the beginning and then the readings, the snuffing out of the candles and then songs will commence from there.”
For Betty Davis, a member of the St. William choir, the service is one that offers a poignant moment for worshipers.
“This Tenebrae is dramatic, dynamic and meaningful for me to preform.”
“By singing this music I reflect on the passion, humanity and forgiveness of Christ,” Davis said.
Through the interplay of readings and song, the candles are extinguished one by one. At the end, only one candle — the Christ candle — remains.
Then a reader shares the first part of Psalm 22, words Jesus spoke on the cross. Then the Christ candle is put out, leaving the congregation in near total darkness. At this point, the service ends. The parishioners leave in silence.
The Rev. Bonnie Lanyi, pastor of Lord of Life, will be one of the readers and feels the service will set the tone for the days ahead.
“I will be reading the Gospel according to St. Mark describing the final moments in the life of Jesus. I’m honored to be a part of this service because St. William built our church in 1928,” Lanyi said.
“We have been connected in recent years in various ways. In the divisive world that we live in, it is time for people of faith to come together.”