“Tenebrae,” meaning “darkness,” is the name of certain hours of the Divine Office of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae is traditionally sung on the day before each respective day—on the evenings of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Dating from at least the 5th century, the tradition immerses the night hours in the Passion. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it, saying, “…the Office of these three days [is treated] as a sort of funeral service, or dirge, commemorating the death of Jesus Christ.”
The Tenebrae Office is layered in rich symbolism, so we will emphasize just five points here. These points reveal the structure of this special Holy Week Office as well as its meaning:
1. Lamentation: All the hymns and psalms of joy or praise are removed from the Office, leaving a funereal lament over Christ’s suffering and death.
2. Darkness: A few specific candles are lit on the altar and on the Tenebrae Hearse, a special fifteen-candle candelabra. The rest of the church remains in total darkness, emphasizing the darkness of Holy Week—the world turning against her Savior and condemning Him to death.
3. Desertion of the Apostles: As the Office is sung or read, the candles on altar and Hearse are extinguished one by one, representing the Apostles’ abandonment of Christ.
4. Absence of Christ: One candle is left alight, and this is concealed behind the altar for a time, symbolizing how Christ is despised and hidden, but still present.
5. Earthquake: While Christ’s candle is hidden, those reading the Office pound on their seats and books to create a disturbed noise. This represents the earthquake which split the ground upon Christ’s death.
After the Friday Office, the church remains dark throughout Holy Saturday, for Christ—the Light of the World—is in the tomb.
Tenebrae is an integral part of the holiest week of the year, which we commemorate this coming week, beginning on Palm Sunday. You can make the most of this time with our Good Catholic series Holy Week—a profound journey with our Savior through His sacred Passion and death. Join us today at Good Catholic!