CNP Logo CanticaNOVA Publications
Online Catalog
Musical Musings
Liturgical Planners
Submit Your Music
Contact Us
Company Description
Musical Musings: Holy Week

Tenebræ - Darkness

by Gary D. Penkala

The beautiful ceremonies of Holy Week contain much of the effective and meaningful symbolism used by the Church in her liturgies. Most dramatic among these symbols is the Service of Light which opens the Great Easter Vigil. To emphasize the meaning of this rite (the return from death of Christ our Light) many parishes are renewing a traditional service of darkness (Tenebræ) scheduled early in Holy Week.

Historically, rather than being a service of its own, Tenebræ was a method of praying Matins and Lauds on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Matins consisted of three divisions called nocturns, each containing three psalms and three lessons (the lessons for Holy Thursday and Good Friday were from the Lamentations of Jeremiah). Six candles were lighted on the altar, in front of which stood a candlelabrum of fifteen lighted candles. After each of the psalms of Matins and Lauds, one of the fifteen candles was extinguished. During the Benedictus the six altar candles were extinguished one by one, and with that all the lights of the church were put out. With fourteen psalms in the service (9 from Matins, 5 from Lauds), there remained one candle lit, the "Christ-candle." This was then hidden behind the altar, signifying the apparent triumph of darkness over light. An antiphon, the Lord's Prayer and a collect were prayed in total darkness. A loud noise was made, symbolizing the cataclysm of the Crucifixion, and then the Christ-candle was returned. All left in silence.

While the entire original Tenebræ service may be too lengthy for parochial usage, there are, nonetheless, several adaptations of the ceremony which offer a dramatic ritual for use early in Holy Week.

James E. Wilbur, in Aids in Ministry magazine, suggests using seven candles, with Scripture taken from Psalm 22, 70, 77, Lamentations and I Corinthians, followed by the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), antiphon, General Intercessions, all the while utilizing the original rubrics.

A Book of Worship, published by Oxford University Press, suggests having eight men seated in the sanctuary, each holding a lighted candle. After each man reads his lesson, he extinguishes his candle; selected hymn verses are sung. The church lights, also, are turned off gradually. The eighth candle is removed, and certain prayers are said in darkness. The candle is then brought back and all depart.

In a booklet on Good Friday liturgies, published by the Archdiocese of Chicago, the following adaptations may be found. All enter in silence. The cantor intones sections of Lamentations, possibly with a congregational refrain interspersed. Several psalms are recited or chanted by cantor and congregation, after which a Scripture lesson is proclaimed. Intercessions follow and the service concludes with the Lord's Prayer and dismissal.

The following is an original scheme, using readily available material.

The church is dimly lit. On the altar are six identical lit candles, and between them a larger Christ-candle. The ministers enter in silence and take their places in the sanctuary. The leader begins with the Sign of the Cross and the Opening Prayer from Palm Sunday. Then follows Psalm 51, sung by cantor and people, after which one candle is extinguished. A minute of silence follows this and each other element of the service. The choir sings an appropriate motet, or the people sing a Passion hymn or canticle. During the silence following, the second candle is put out.

A reader proclaims the lesson (Isaiah 42:1-7), found as Reading I for Monday of Holy Week. Afterwards, the third candle is extinguished. The cantor or choir leads the singing of Psalm 27 (Monday of Holy Week) and the fourth candle is put out. A group of readers should alternate in reading the Lamentations of Jeremiah, perhaps with brief congregational or choral musical interpolations. The fifth candle is then extinguished. After Psalm 69 (Wednesday of Holy Week) is sung the sixth candle is put out, leaving only the Christ-candle lit.

The Canticle of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12, Reading I for Good Friday) is chanted. This is introduced by the congregational refrain: "Glory and praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ," which also recurs at major divisions throughout the canticle. After this song the Christ-candle is removed and taken away out of sight (behind the altar or to the back of the church) as all the lights are turned off. The antiphon, "Christ became obedient unto death..." is sung by the choir, perhaps in its Latin version, "Christus factus est." The Lord's Prayer is introduced and then recited or sung by all. A collect is prayed (perhaps the Opening Prayer for Wednesday of Holy Week). This collect must be memorized or prayer in the celebrant's own words, as the church will be dark. A loud noise is made from the back of the church, after which the Christ-candle is returned to the sanctuary. Only enough lights are turned on for the safe exit of the people. All depart in silence.

 Back to Holy Week Index

Home / Online Catalog / Musical Musings / Liturgical Planning
Submit Your Music / Contact Us / Company Description / Links

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388

Send website comments or questions to: