Tenebrae (Service of Shadows) at Saint Mark

The lone candle remaining lit at the conclusion of Tenebrae

As part of preparing to enter into the Triduum, we gathered tonight at Saint Mark parish for Tenebrae or the Service of Shadows. Over the course of an hour and a half, we chanted fifteen psalms – split into groups of three called nocturnes – with readings from the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah, the writings of Saint Augustine, and Paul’s letter to the Hebrews between each nocturne.

As each psalm concluded, an altar server extinguished one of the fifteen candles set before the altar. Though the church was lit from without and within when we started, the shadows deepened as the service drew on and twilight fell.

At the conclusion of the Canticle of Zechariah, the fifteenth and final candle was removed from the sanctuary. Standing together in the darkness, the Christus Factus Est was chanted and the Our Father prayed. In the silence that followed, a loud noise – the strepitus 1– rang out in the church, signifying the closing of the tomb of Christ. The lone candle was returned to the front of the sanctuary and by its light, we left the darkened church.

I was introduced to Tenebrae in 2015, when my friend Thom Ryng (along with some interested parishioners) introduced me to the tradition. A sort of liturgical portmanteau of Matins & Lauds (Office of Readings and Morning Prayer, respectively), this used to be a staple of the Triduum – offered on Spy Wednesday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday. With the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, Tenebrae fell out of practice – though it has been experiencing a resurgence in many parishes.

Personally, Tenebrae is one of my favorite para-liturgical celebrations of Holy Week. As a pastor, I have been rather blown away by how well received it has been by parishioners – I would never have guessed that a mid-week hour-plus service of chanted psalms would inflame the hearts of so many! And yet, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: who among us doesn’t long for a mystical experience of the Lord’s work among us?! Happily, this is not the last but rather the first of such opportunities to enter into the mysteries of Christ’s saving work.

May we continue together in prayer as we contemplate the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord.

  1. The strepitus, it should be noted, is produced at Saint Mark by an altar server slamming the sacristy door (a solid-core wooden door framed in steel) shut hard. This role is much-sought-after among the servers – and they relish the gasps of those caught off-guard at the noise! Though I was not among those gasping, close observers may have caught sight of the priest flinching ever-so-slightly ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ↩︎

Spy Wednesday

Today is the last full day of Lent (which officially ends at the beginning of the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday). This day is known as ‘spy’ Wednesday, taken from story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – the Gospel proclaimed at today’s Mass. In his misguided attempt to force Jesus into fulfilling the expectation of a conquering messiah, Judas unwittingly became an agent for those who declared themselves enemies of Christ. He became a spy, looking for and taking the opportunity to betray the Lord.

The Kiss of Judas by James Tissot

It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized how the devil heightens his attacks during Holy Week. In fact, it was two years ago today that I found myself in such serious struggles that I reached out to one of our auxiliary bishops, asking for his guidance on how to deal with a particularly unsettling set of circumstances that was troubling me and my parish. I couldn’t understand why it was happening at one of the most sacred times of the year! Bishop Mueggenborg reminded me that the devil continues to lash out even in defeat, and that holy week – particularly Spy Wednesday – is a time when we are often must under assault.

In retrospect, it seems obvious – I’ve always found holy week to be a time of additional anxieties, frustrations, and conflict as we try to fit all the liturgical and sacramental pieces together. Honestly, it had simply never occurred to me that there was a spiritual element. But of course, Satan is upset! We’re celebrating Jesus’ triumph over sin and death – and more than that, our sharing in that victory! New Christians are baptized, old Christians renew their baptismal promises – heck, even fallen-away Christians make time to come to Easter Masses!

Looking back on holy weeks of years gone by, I can see how the devil has tried to undermine not just the parish celebrations of this holy time, but my own ability to receive the associated graces. I recall one particular Easter vigil where it seemed to me that everything that could go wrong went wrong. Ministers and priest (me!) alike missed their cues, lights & candles were extinguished or lit at the wrong time, music was wonky, and so on – all of my plans and hopes for the Mass went spectacularly sideways. By the time Mass was over, I was a disappointed, angry mess. I tried to put on a cheerful face for the community, but I let my guard down with one parishioner with whom I was friends. As I ranted about all the things that didn’t go right, he looked at me and simply said ‘oh? I didn’t notice any of that – it was just such a beautiful Mass!’ before cheerfully departing with his wife.

It was about that moment that I realized that I had managed to sabotage my own reception of God’s gifts because I had focused things other than Jesus.

I like to think I’m a little wiser and a little calmer now….. though I’ll probably still indulge in at least one private meltdown between now and Sunday. But the nickname of this day has proven to be a helpful cautionary tale in a couple of ways. The most obvious is to be on guard for the attacks of the devil – he wants to sneak in and rob us of the graces & joys of this time! If we simply surrender ourselves to God, accepting that only He is perfect, that battle will be over before it ever starts.

Perhaps the less obvious caution is to be aware that the devil can use us to sneak in, to rob both us and others of those graces & joys – especially if we allow anxieties, frustrations, and anger to drive us to lash out at those around us. We may unwittingly become agents – spies, if you will – of the devil’s effort to deny us the fruits of this holy time.

The good news is that it’s not too late to set – or change – our course. May we do what Judas could not: recognizing and accepting our own expectations & limitations, bringing them humbly to the Lord. We can then celebrate how Jesus transforms human weakness into heavenly triumph as we journey through the Sacred Triduum to Easter Sunday.

So even if it isn’t perfect, may you have a blessed Holy Week!