For many congregations the Tenebrae service, usually held on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, is one of the most moving and meaningful worship services of the year. In a candle-lit sanctuary Christ's suffering is commemorated through Scripture and song. Candles are extinguished one by one as the congregation listens to the account of Christ's suffering and death.

The service of Tenebrae, meaning "darkness" or "shadows," is not a new development in church liturgy. It has I been observed since medieval times. Originally Tenebrae was held in the monasteries on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week. It was part of the matins and lauds (daily Scripture-reading and prayer services) which began at two o'clock in the morning. Later, to allow town folk to participate in these services, the monasteries scheduled the Tenebrae during the afternoon or evening before each of these holy days.

Traditionally the services were a prolonged meditation on Christ's suffering. Thursday's Tenebrae centered on the Last Supper and the betrayal; Friday's on Christ's judgment, crucifixion, and death; and Saturday's on his burial and the hope of his resurrection. During these services fifteen candles (fourteen dark-colored and one white) were arranged on a triangular candelabra. Fourteen psalms were read during the matins and lauds, each followed by a choir response. After each reading one candle was extinguished until only the white candle, often called the Christ candle, remained burning. The Christ candle was removed ("hidden"), then later brought back to symbolize the anticipated resurrection of Christ. The services were concluded with the noise of a "clapper," said to symbolize the forces of evil and darkness, or the earthquake at Christ's death.

Tenebrae services today, usually held on one day instead of three, follow many of the ancient customs. The pastor and members of the congregation read a number of Scripture passages— either the traditional fourteen or fewer. Often these passages are not psalms but rather portions of the Passion story. But no matter which Scripture and music are selected, the pattern of extinguishing the candles (and the overhead lights) and restoring the Christ candle remains the same. Some churches accentuate the darkness by tolling the bells.

The Tenebrae service always has a somber tone, reflected in the darkness, in the accounts of Christ's suffering, in the music, and in the silence of the people as they leave the sanctuary. But underlying the somber feeling is the anticipation of the resurrection, mirrored in the Christ candle.

The service offered on the next page contains many elements often present in a Tenebrae service. A congregation may either use the service as presented or substitute Scripture and musical selections of their own.

(Note: Many people wonder about the "hearse" which is often mentioned in older writings on Tenebrae. Hearse is merely an old term for the candlestick or candelabra used during the service.)


Matthew 17:1—13: The Transfiguration

The suffering motif is here put in its proper context. We learn from Luke's account of the transfiguration (9:31) that Jesus' death was to be a "fulfillment"—that is, his death had a purpose. And his death would culminate in a vision of glory—of which we are given a brief glimpse here. The kingdom motif of "already but not yet," which we find in so much of the Christian life, comes to expression here.

Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus
(PH 369, TH 128, RL 333, HB 210)
0 Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair
(RL256, HB182)
Christ upon the Mountain Peak
(RL 257)
Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies

Surely He Has Borne Our Grief (Graun. Concordia, #98-1171)
Christ the King (R. Ling W. with bells and flute. Augsburg, #112110)


Matthew 17:14-27: "If You Have Faith…"

This section has several themes. We have chosen to emphasize faith as reliance on God. If the disciples had relied on God, they would have had the power and the authority to cast out the demon and to restore the boy. Only through faith in God's power to work in and through them can the disciples follow Jesus.

1 Need Thee Every Hour
(PH 427, TH 710, RL 443, HB 324)
If Thou But Suffer
(TH 567, RL 151, HB 344)
How Firm a Foundation
(PH 411, TH 80, RL 172, HB 172)
Psalm 46
(PH 84,85, TH 37, RL 102, HB 381)

Wondrous Love (Arr. Shaw-Parker. G. Schirmer: New York, #907)
O God, and Not on Human Trust (J. Pachelbel. Concordia, #98-1006)
Lord, Give Me Faith (Roff. SA. R. D. Row, #25)


Matthew 18:1—14: The Importance of Little Ones

After Jesus had established his messianic claim, he began stressing relationships in the messianic community. Verses 1—14 deal in several ways with the "little ones" in the community, those who often seem insignificant or go unnoticed. These little ones (children, recent converts, "average" members, wandering ones) are to be models for us of deep trust and humble reliance on God; and like God we should abhor the idea that any one of them be lost.

Shepherd of Tender Youth
(PH414.TH117, HB471)
Blessed Jesus, We Are Here
(RL 530)
Psalm 40
(PH 72, TH 565, RL 470, HB 413)
Psalm 43
(PH 77)

I Will Rise (A. Lovelace. Sacred Press, #L-7425)
Lift High the Cross (R. Vickery. AMSI, #380)
Lead Me, Lord (Wesley. SA. B. F. Wood, #228)


Matthew 18:15—35: Forgiveness

This passage teaches that Christians have two ways of responding to sin and hurt and that both ways are aimed at reconciliation and restoration. The first response involves the official community ("tell it to the church") and may lead to excluding a nonrepentant member in the hope that he or she will return. The second response involves individual Christians: Peter asks Jesus how often we should forgive someone who does wrong to us, and Jesus demonstrates that the follower of Christ doesn't keep count. Remembering how much we have been forgiven by the King, we say, "Of course I'll forgive my sister or brother—always."

I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord
(PH 479, TH 280, RL 409)
Blest Be the Tie That Binds
(PH 447, TH 285, RL 407,408, HB 473)
Psalm 133
(PH 278,279)
Psalm 20
(PH 15)

The Gift of Love (H. Hopson. Agape: Carol Stream, Illinois, #3922)
To Thee We Sing (P. Tkach. Neil Kjos: Park Ridge, Illinois, #6501)
Praise the Lord (M. Jillson, CRC Pub.: Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bible Songs, Ps. 113)

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 2 © December 1986, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.