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(tĕn`ĕbrā) [Lat.,=darkness], in the Roman Catholic Church, ceremony performed on the Wednesday and following evenings of Holy WeekHoly Week,
week before Easter. Its chief days are named Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. In Christian life it is a week of devout observance, commemorating the Passion and Jesus' death on the cross. The liturgies have special features and services, e.
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. As the choir chants, a number of candles set on a hearse (a kind of candelabrum) are extinguished one by one until only one remains. The last candle is hidden behind the altar, and in the darkness a noise is made, symbolizing the convulsion of nature at the Crucifixion. The single lighted candle is then replaced on the hearse. The traditional plainsong for the ceremony is much esteemed.


Some Roman Catholic and Anglican churches offer Tenebrae services during the Triduum, that is, the last three days before Easter. This solemn evening service commemorates Jesus' crucifixion, death, and entombment (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). Tenebrae services are generally divided up into three distinct sections called "nocturnes." Each nocturne is composed of psalms, chanted verses, and Bible readings. The name Tenebrae, which means "darkness" in Latin, refers to several aspects of this observance. For example, as the service proceeds, the light in the church grows dimmer, until the congregation is left in complete darkness. This dimming of the lights symbolizes Jesus' suffering, abandonment, death, and burial. It may also allude to the biblical assertion that darkness fell over the land during the last three hours of Jesus' suffering on the cross (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44). Both the themes addressed during the service and the symbolic use of candles make this observance a literal and symbolic descent into darkness. The service begins with candles glowing on the altar, which are sometimes placed in a kind of elaborate candelabra known as a "Tenebrae hearse." The clergy extinguish one candle after another as the service progresses. Most commentators suggest that this process represents the way in which Jesus' followers deserted him one by one during his trial, execution, and burial. Finally one candle remains, representing Christ. Near the end of the service this candle is hidden, symbolizing Jesus'death and burial. After the final prayers are said, the candle reappears briefly, its faint glow permitting worshipers to make their way out of the church.

The Tenebrae hearse has an interesting history. The English word "hearse" evolved from hirpex, a Latin word meaning "harrow," an agricultural tool used to break up the soil. English speakers borrowed the word from the French, who transformed it into herse. To people who spent their days working the land, the triangular candelabra, with its two ascending rows of candles, resembled a harrow and so acquired the same name. They used the same word to describe a wooden framework used to hold the burial cloths over caskets. Like the candelabra this framework was fitted with candles that resembled the spikes of a harrow. Eventually the word hearse came to be used in the sense we use it today, as a vehicle that carries coffins to funerals and burial grounds.

Another Tenebrae tradition calls for the making of a loud noise at the end of the service. This sound represents the earthquake that took place when Jesus died (Matthew 27:54). Some writers believe that this interpretation came about after the fact, as people sought to attribute meaning to the sound of prayer books snapping shut, a sound which the darkness seemed to amplify. Other researchers suggest that the loud noise originally came from the crack of a wooden clapper signaling the end of the service. These clappers were pressed into service from Maundy Thursday to Easter, since church tradition forbade the joyous sound of bells during this sad time. Tenebrae services can be traced back to the eighth century, and may have been in existence as early as the sixth century. Originally the service was performed in the middle of the night, since it combines matins and lauds, monastic prayer services traditionally offered at midnight and right before daybreak, respectively. Later, however, the service was pushed back to the previous evening in order that lay people might attend. The gradual extinguishing of candles originally took place only on Good Friday. By the twelfth century this practice had been adopted for all Tenebrae services during the Triduum. The number of candles used at these services varied until the late Middle Ages, when fifteen was determined to be the appropriate number. The readings traditionally used for the service date back to the eighth century and consist of selections from the Bible's Book of Lamentations, the writings of St. Augustine, and the letters of St. Paul. After Vatican II, a series of important meetings of Roman Catholic Church leaders that took place between 1962 and 1965, the service was rewritten to include other materials.

Further Reading

Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Stevens, D. "Tenebrae." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 13. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. "Tenebrae." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Thurston, Herbert. "Tenebrae." In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at: Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.