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Fifteen candles flicker in the darkness. A deep silence pervades the nave of the church, and a solemn reverence envelops every person present. The only sound is the rustling of the choir as they prepare their sheets of music. Then the singing begins, and one by one the candles on the large black hearse are blown out, until only the center candle remains lit. At the end of the service, the priest takes this candle and processes out of the church. The whole nave is plunged into complete darkness as the people pound on the pews. After a few minutes, the flame of the candle once again illuminates the church as the priest returns and places the candle back on the hearse. The pounding ceases, the last candle is extinguished, and the people leave in silence.

This beautiful service, known as Tenebrae, is a wonderful tradition extending back to the early 800s and has been practiced by the Church for centuries. Tenebrae derives its name from the Latin word meaning “darkness,” since it occurs during the night or early hours of the morning. In keeping with the spirit of Lent, the service is mournful and resembles a funeral. Hence, we refer to the triangular candelabra as a hearse and reserve this service for the days of the Triduum. As a combination of Matins and Lauds (the first two hours of the Divine Office), Tenebrae consists of fifteen psalms and a few readings called “lessons.” After each psalm, a candle is blown out, reminding us of how the disciples deserted our Lord during his Passion. The center candle represents Christ Himself, the Light of the world, who is temporarily hidden from our view at the moment of His death. The strepitus, or beating of the pews, symbolizes the earthquake that occurred when Christ expired on the cross, and the sudden silence afterwards allows us to mediate more fully on the gravity of His death.

During Holy Week, let us take advantage of Tenebrae as an opportunity to unite ourselves more fully to Christ’s death. The darkness is not one of despair or desolation, but a darkness that points beyond itself to the beauty of Heaven; it is a darkness that reminds us that we are mortal creatures with an immortal soul, and it is the darkness that enables us to appreciate the light of the Resurrection all the more deeply. May we enter into this darkness with the proper disposition of heart and so be prepared to receive our risen Lord at the close of this Lenten season.

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