What is Tenebrae?
What is Tenebrae, and where does it come from?
To understand what “Tenebrae” is, one first needs to understand the Divine Office, known today as the “Liturgy of the Hours”. The word “liturgy” originally meant a “public work” or a “service in the name of the people”. In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in “the work of God”. The liturgy is also a participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Liturgy of the Hours is a consecration of time, a Christian tradition from the very beginning of the Church in which we consecrate to God the whole cycle of the day and night. Many are familiar with the term “Vespers” which denotes the evening prayer of the Church. There are several other hours including Lauds (morning prayer), Compline (evening prayer), and Matins (mid-night prayer). Tenebrae is a name given to a special celebration of Matins celebrated on each day of the Tridiuum, very early in the morning (2-3 am). If you go up to Berryville and visit Holy Cross Abbey, you will find the monks there wake up at 3 am to pray Matins every day. Matins is different from the other hours of prayer in that in addition to psalms, it contains a set of readings (which also gives rise to the name “Office of Readings”). There are three “Nocturns” in the traditional Matins, each containing three psalms, three readings, and three responsories. Praying the three nocturns in their entirety would be a very lengthy service. What we will pray tonight is a shortened version taken from the prayers of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday.
The prayers of Tenebrae are distinct from other Matins, in that they contain readings from the book of Lamentations and the responsories are from the Passion. The most notable parts of Tenebrae are the ceremonial extinguishing of the candles, the gradual darkening of the church, and the loud “strepitus” which comes at the end of the service. The gradual darkening of the church represents the darkening of the earth on Good Friday, and the strepitus represents the earthquake following Christ’s death.\