I’ve never actually heard Tenebrae. In fact, I don’t recall ever even having heard of the offices of Tenebrae (Darkness) until maybe last year. At this point, I think the best thing for you to do is to get a cup of coffee, go to The Wanderer, here, and read about it. 

Many parishes follow “the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church… ” beginning with the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Passion Sunday). I recall the first time I encountered that practice, unexpectedly, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent a few years back: the cross on the altar, all the statues, even the processional cross, all wrapped in purple cloth (sadly, my current parish does not engage in this practice, but I recall it’s striking effect nevertheless). A stark, visual sign, cold and bleak as a windswept snow covered field. We are physical, visual creatures; and physical, visual things have meaning for us. That is, after all, what a sacrament is: a visible sign of an invisible grace. And now that we are now on short final, as it were, into the darkness of the Good Friday, we - some of us, anyway - have another stark, visible sign (like the crosses wrapped in purple): Tenebrae. Here’s a clip from The Wanderer piece: 

“Medieval liturgists and theologians were prolific in explaining the rich symbolism of this solemnized diminution of light. The extinction of the candles one by one was seen to represent the desertion of the disciples one by one, or the killing of the prophets over the ages. It was likewise seen as expressing the extinction of joy in the hearts of the disciples wrought by the arrest and death of Christ. The repetition of this rite for three days was interpreted as memorializing the three hours of darkness while Christ hung on the cross, as well as the three days of His entombment.

The one candle left to burn alone at the apex of the Tenebrae hearse has most commonly been explained as a symbol of Christ the Light of the World…”

In the Diocese of Portland we have two Tenebrae services that I know of:

  1. In Waterville, this:

Tenebrae Service in Waterville

A Tenebrae Service will be held at Notre Dame Church, 116 Silver Street in Waterville, on Monday, March 26, at 7 p.m. The word “tenebrae” is Latin for darkness. This beautiful service combines elements of sacred Scripture and music as the church, illuminated only by candlelight, moves from light to total darkness. This truly is an unforgettable experience that is guaranteed to enrich your Lenten journey.

For more information please contact Fr. Matthew Gregory at 872-2281.

  1. St. Joseph’s Church (Good Shepherd Parish), 178 Elm St. Biddeford, ME 04005: a Tenebrae service to close out Holy Thursday, 10PM. Parish office phone number is (207) 282-3321; goodshepherd@portlanddiocese.org