Monday, March 19, 2007


"Kerzen" by Gerhard Richter.

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.


crystal said...

That's beautiful, Liam. Thanks for posting this.

I've never been to Tenebrae service. It's like the beginning of what concludes in the Easter Vigil, which starts in darkness? I love the symbolism.

Liam said...

Thanks, Crystal. I recommend the service if there's one nearby. There are also some beautiful settings for it that have recorded by people like Morales, Palestrina, and Tallis, and a really spooky version by Gesualdo.

cowboyangel said...


Didn't we go with you guys to a Lenten service at Ascension? Was it Good Friday? It was very moving, I remember.

I've always loved the Tenebrae service. I went to an especially powerful one at the Episcopal cathedral in Denver.

BTW, I like the subtle incorporation of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation into your post. I've always found them a righteous band.

I saw an exhibition of Richter somehwere . . . was that in Madrid? Were you there? I like his work.

Jeff said...

Beautifully done, Liam. Thanks for sharing it. Your parish is fortunate to have you writing about it.

Liam said...

William -- I think you went to the Holy Thursday service, which is very moving at Ascension. Were you at Romell and Lukas' baptism at Easter two years ago?

The Richter exhibit was at the MOMA, I think, right before it moved out to Queens.

Jeff -- Thank you, that's very kind.

Gabriele C. said...

I'm attending a Bible workshop about the Passion according to Markus; evening seminars every Wednesday in March. The group proves to be educated and interested in the theologial and historical aspects - it's almost like a seminar at university. And they don't mind agnostics. :)

I even got my father hooked, and he never read the Bible before.

Garpu the Fork said...

Holy Thursday is my favorite feast of the entire calendar. This year I'm going to be at a conference over Holy Week. I know...offer it up. ;)