I was asked to write some Lenten reflections for my parish bulletin, and I wrote them on the Tenebrae service:
This will be my third Lent at Ascension, and like the last two years, I will attend the Tenebrae service on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Lent is a time of reflecting on what is bare, what is somber, what is dark. It is, of course, a time of exquisite hope as we await Easter, but hope almost on the edge of desolation as we consider the bleakness of Good Friday and the cross. For the Easter fire to blaze out and give us light, we must have darkness first. Tenebrae is Latin for darkness, and the prayer service that bears that name enacts in many ways that last stripping from ourselves whatever amount of ephemeral vanity that has clogged our life during the previous year. It is performed in a darkened church lit only by candles that are extinguished one by one as each reading is recited. In the end, there is no light, and we leave the church with silence and darkness settling on us, paring us down and emptying us out, preparing us to be filled that much more powerfully by the joy of Resurrection we experience when Easter finally arrives.
Last year I put together the booklet for the service and this year I went over the texts once again in order to correct typos. I was struck by the beautiful starkness of Psalm 22, which is read on Good Friday and has been seen as prefiguring the Passion: “I can count every one of my bones.” The harsh physicality of that line sends chills up my spine. “These people stare at me and gloat; they divide my clothing among them: they cast lots for my robe.” Of course, the Psalm begins with the words Jesus spoke on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Good Friday service continues with cries of penitence as we read Psalm 51: “My offenses truly I know them; my sin is always before me.” Still, though we brush against despair, in the darkness of that day lay the promise of healing and the possibility of redemption: “Indeed you love truth in the heart; then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom. O purify me, then I shall be clean; O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.” This is what Lent is about: “A pure heart, create for me, O God.”
Prayers of lamentation continue throughout the three days, and every day the church is darkened a little more after each prayer is read and the candle is put out. There are also, however, prayers of joy, and we finish the Holy Saturday service with the praise of Psalm 150: “Oh praise him with resounding cymbals, praise him with clashing cymbals. Let everything that lives and breathes give praise to the Lord.”
When the service is over, I will quietly get up and leave the church. I will walk out into the cool morning air, the rays of the sun shining eastward down 107th street and, glad and somber, prepare myself throughout the day for the Easter vigil Mass. In the end the Tenebrae service, like Lent itself, is not about darkness, but about the underlying light that remains even in the darkest times.