Tenebrae, from the Latin word for “shadows,” has been observed in the church of Jesus Christ since the fourth century, on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. During the service, different readers will recall the events that led Jesus to the cross, and we will extinguish seven candles, one by one, dramatizing the suffering and death of Jesus. The diminishing light symbolizes the fading devotion of the disciples and the sin of the world. At the end of the service the worship center will be dark. Following the solo “Were You There,” the bell will toll thirty-three times (to signal Jesus’ thirty-three years). The Christ candle will then return, symbolizing the hope of his promised resurrection. Please leave silently, contemplating Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus, the Son of God, was dead.
Hymn: “What Wondrous Love” PsH 379, PH 85, SFL 169, SNC 142, TH 261, TWC 212
Words of Introduction
Every death we die, Jesus died; we cannot go where he has not gone. He companions us even in darkness and sorrow. And he leads us to light and life again.
Every death except one. He did not die the first death, the Primal Separation. Jesus never rebelled against the Father; therefore, Jesus did not deserve to die any death whatsoever. Death for him who didn’t sin could only come by his own choosing. This is an unspeakable mercy: that in order to seek and to save the lost, Jesus volunteered to experience what we are required by our sins to experience.
Every death he died, then, must properly be called a “sacrifice.”
And excepting that first death, he died them all: every Secondary Dying we suffer because of our sins, he suffered as a sacrifice. And the third death, the Corporeal Dying, was his bodily sacrifice upon the cross.
Every death we die, I say, he died: but he died yet one death more which, because of him, we need not die. He suffered the fourth, the Dying Absolute. This is the Greatest Sacrifice. He perished in our places, that we need never come near this extremest sort of perishing.
The faithful shall never descend into hell! They shall live in the presence of God eternally.
But all this is a story.
Of course: God loves us by doing; when we tell what God has done, then we are telling the story. God enters human experience, the living in relationships, the dying of sundered relationships, the resurrection of renewed relationships; we meet him, then, in experience. That is to say, our stories and his story merge. They become the same story.
No story is more important than this one, for none could be hopeful apart from this one. Except for salvation, every tale the world would tell must end in death, cold and sober and eternal.
Listen. Marvel at the depth and the persistence and the power of Jesus’ love for you. And believe in what you hear: this is our story.
His First Sacrifice: The Incarnation
Scripture: John 1:1-5, 14; Philippians 2:5-8 (Reader 1)
The First Candle Is Extinguished
The first deed Jesus did on our behalf—the very first act—was to suffer a sort of dying. It characterized the quality of his love forever thereafter.
Christmas commemorates his first significant separation! Jesus came down to us not burning with heavenly glory, the very sight of which made Moses’ face a fire that frightened Israel. We couldn’t have tolerated the First Light directly. So the Son of God gave up the glorious relationship of omnipotent authority for the lesser relationships of the flesh. He gave up his eternal life for the temporal life of humanity. Who can measure the depth of such love? No one. Because we cannot measure the distance between heaven and earth.
He who never disobeyed did not count his parity with God as something he must preserve. He emptied himself, down and down. He severed himself from deific power, took the form of a servant, came down to us in human frame, went down beneath the rule of death, humbled himself into obedience even unto death on the cross.
Immortality became mortal.
And the story starts exactly as do all our stories: we enter as infants. We were infants first. So was Jesus.
Even on earth Jesus didn’t have to die. He was by his Deity and by his righteousness the model of perfect life. Jesus maintained all his relationships perfectly.
- The Primal Relationship, his relationship to God the Father, was whole and healthy, because Jesus was obedient, trusting utterly in the Word of God, praying continually. His will was God’s will. He was the true “Israel.”
- The Communal Relationships, his relationships with people, were not marred by selfishness, but were ever centered on the other. He loved the people, pitied them, served them, called them sometimes roughly to account, but called them nevertheless, called them and never did anything not calculated to benefit them.
- The Natural Relationship, his relationship to Creation, never knew more harmony with a human. Jesus spoke to the wind and the waves, and they obeyed. He murmured to fish, and they rose to the nets. He made blind eyes see. He took a seemingly dead flesh by the hand and whispered, Talitha cumi, and the damsel stood up looking for lunch. Most of what people called “miracles” weren’t so much miracle as the restoration of the loving relationship between God’s Image on earth and God’s Handiwork. This is how things were meant to be in the first place!
- The Internal Relationship, modeled in Jesus, was whole and healthy. He knew himself perfectly. He knew his person and his purpose upon the earth; he knew precisely the willing limitations on his power. Between his image of himself and that actual self, there was no difference.
In him, then, there was no death.
Of all who walked the earth, this one didn’t deserve to die, nor could anyone truly condemn him to die apart from his choosing.
Hymn: “Meekness and Majesty” SNC 109
His Second Sacrifice: The Passion
“Behold Your King”
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11 (Reader 2)
The Second Candle Is Extinguished
The passion of our Lord is that he suffered the Secondary Dyings (the suffering for our sins) in full consciousness, in their extremes. Even so he is able to walk with us wherever we go: he broke the trail. He knows it intimately. He knows every step of the grieving we’ve traversed. He walks with us. We have never walked alone.
On the other hand, his experience was solitary. It is the hauntingly unique quality of Jesus’ dying that he suffered every death in a perfect isolation: no one knew what he was going through. No one could companion him.
What good to him was all the praise with which the people met him in Jerusalem? “Hosanna!—yeah! Messiah!—you bet! Now, show your stuff, you Son of David, and cut our enemies down! Yo, we shall all rise up in victory now! Hosannah!”
But he was riding to town to die. And he knew it. Not one of these cheering supporters understood him. Not one.
We’re able to sacrifice ourselves for those we love; but we desire that someone should know the value of the act; we hope that there will be at least one person who admires and approves. Or what’s the value? What’s the worth? How would it feel if no one approved? How would it feel if absolutely everyone criticized the act to one degree or another?
How must it have felt to enter Jerusalem in order to save it by going down to defeat before it? How must it feel to count the days until his death? And the minutes?
But everyone’s yelling, “Hurrah!”
It’s a separation as broad as a gulf between the people and the Christ. It is already a Secondary Dying.
“You Will All Fall Away”
Scripture: Matthew 26:17-30 (Reader 3)
Songs during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper
“Calvary” SNC 140
“Jesus, Remember Me” PsH 217, SNC 143
“Now Behold the Lamb” SNC 143
“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” SNC 182
Scripture: Matthew 26:31-35 (Reader 4)
The Third Candle Is Extinguished
Every sort of human separation, treachery, lying, the loss of intimates: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” For Jesus, part of that strike was the scattering of his beloved; part of the dying was their desertion.
Midweek, Judas slips away to effect a betrayal. But Jesus knows. He hasn’t the comfort of ignorance. Jesus knows all things. He must in his mind’s eye follow Judas with grief.
Look at his face on Thursday evening, while the disciples eat but do not know they eat the Lord’s last supper. His heart grows heavier and heavier. “One of you will betray me.”
Does it cheer him, then, to receive vigorous protests and promises of “relationship” forever and against all odds?
Simon Peter: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.”
The first time I received such a promise of goodness and life from my son, I believed it; it made me happy. He failed to keep the promise. But the second time he made such a promise, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, believing that he had learned from previous error, and I believed him, and it made me happy. But he failed again.
When my son makes the same promise again, now having made it and broken it so many times that I can no longer count them, it tears me up. He hurts me because I love him, but he doesn’t even know himself. Or else he cares so little as to lie to me. He will hurt me when he breaks the promise again; but he hurts me right now, because of the futility of his own character, of his will and his virtue and even of his love; it is all dross and he does not know it. I know, and I grieve.
So, then, does Peter’s promise cheer Jesus?
“Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
Peter says, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
So say all the disciples.
Jesus’ solitude, even within the ring of his closest friends, is complete.
“They Went to a Place Called Gethsemane”
Scripture: Mark 14:32-42 (Reader 5)
The Fourth Candle Is Extinguished
“My soul is sorrowful, even unto death,” he says softly to Peter and James and John, now in a private darkness, a separated garden. “Remain here and watch.”
They fall asleep.
Sundered thus, he turns to the Father in prayer. Jesus turns from the Communal Relationship to the Primal, and he who has ever been obedient begs now: “Father, father, take it away. Please take it away from me.”
Take what away? What terrorizes Jesus, even in the anticipation?
The whip? The hatred of the people? Yes. But more than that.
Then what? The cross? Death on the cross? Yes, of course: but this must be more than a merely mortal death, or what is the difference between Jesus and any other good person cut down?
“Let this cup pass from me!”
Jesus is agonized by the only death that can save humanity from its right and righteous, just, judicial conclusion: Hell. To drink this “cup” will mean to bear the guilt of the whole world, from Adam to [reader inserts his or her own name] to the last morning of time before the Maker returns in judgment. To drink this “cup” means that Christ becomes the full history of the sins of humankind. In consequence, he shall die the fourth death, the Dying Absolute.
“Take,” he begs a second time and a third time, three times only, “this cup from me.”
He truly fears such an extremity of death.
And what shall I say? How shall I describe the love of the Lord at this instant? For though he loathes this death worse than any other can loathe it (since he alone can truly comprehend it), even now he remains for our sakes perfectly obedient to God. In him the Primal Relationship never, never breaks. He whispers, “Nevertheless, not what I will, but as thou wilt.”
Obedience! From the beginning, obedience would have maintained the relationship between us and God, would have maintained our lives forever. Disobedience caused all our dying. But now again, it is obedience in the person of Jesus that interrupts history and snatches us from the final dying.
This is how much the Lord Jesus loves us: he obeys the most terrible and the most merciful of all commandments: Give your life as a ransom for many.
He does two things we could not do: he lives a righteous life; and then, even as a result of his righteousness, he goes to die the Absolute Death.
The Father refuses the suit of the Son. Jesus’ Secondary Dyings now outstrip anything we mortals have felt on earth.
From this point forward, Christ is alone in the cosmos.
Hymn: “Go to Dark Gethsemane” PsH 381, PH 97, TWC 225
“He Was Despised and We Esteemed Him Not”
Scripture: Isaiah 53:3-9 (Reader 6)
The Fifth Candle Is Extinguished
Judas comes. Judas kisses him. The crowd that arrives with swords and clubs now grabs him, binds him and leads him away. And yes, we all forsake him.
We do, all of us, flee.
Every person has sinned this sin. Every story is woven into this story right here. For even now, Jesus knows the names Douglas, Mary, James, Jane. His heart contains us all; his life combines, his death relieves the reach of the entire race.
We are here. . . . And we flee.
Every human institution established to offer godliness and justice and health and protection and truth (that is, relationship) now cuts off Jesus too, killing him bit by bit:
The religious community, far from keeping the great commandment upon which all the law and the prophets depend, arraigns him before a mock trial, destroys truth, admits false witnesses, accuses him of blasphemy, and sentences him to death. All relationship is severed here: “His own received him not.”
Separation: he suffers the death.
The judicial community is now manipulated by malevolent forces to prosecute the sentence of death. On one side stands a legitimate criminal. On the other, Truth. But the crowd and the Governor choose to release the criminal and to execute Truth. Jesus, now, is solitary. There is no system of the human community prepared to understand or else to serve him. None.
Separation: he is suffering all deaths.
The universal community, all humanity: the Christ cannot have been ignorant of the timeless vastitude of his separations. We all, says the prophet, “esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” This is the uttermost of Secondary Dying, when not one created soul stands in relationship to Jesus. Now do we reject him; we feel righteous doing so; for pious people exercise their piety by separating themselves from one who is smitten by God. Obviously, God separated himself first. We good people only do the godly thing.
And this is the reason why we hide our faces from him: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” His ugliness is our ugliness. The sin we see in him is ours. This is a sight we refuse, a picture of ourselves too loathsome to admit. If we stand in relationship to this Jesus, you see—the one approaching the cross, not the one glorious in resurrection; the one befouled, defeated, sickly, unpretty, contemptuous because he bowed his head and accepted it all, while we desire our heroes to be triumphant—if we looked upon this Jesus we’d risk ugliness all over again. Too great a risk. This is not a Jesus we can know. Or love.
Give us another sort of Christ. Give us another religion. We will have nothing to do with this cringing, pitiful wretch.
Thus, when Jesus gazes over from the Roman courtyard, his vision pierces history, even to today; and even in this day he finds no member of the human race willing to acknowledge him. No, not one. Not this Jesus. We know not this Lord. Another master, yes. A great teacher, perhaps. A miracle-worker, to be sure—one who can get us into heaven: him. But not this monster obviously on his way to hell, hated by all, rejected by God. No, we neither know nor understand such a one.
“But you are one of the followers of Jesus.”
“Certainly you are; you’ve the same defects, the same sort of ugliness. . . .”
God, strike us dead if we’re not telling the truth: we do not know this man of whom you speak!
And immediately the cock crows a second time. All are gone. Even the best have left him.
Separation: the Son of God and the Son of Man is solitary in the universe.
Hymn: “Ah, Holy Jesus” PsH 386, PH 93, RL 285, TH 248, TWC 231
His Third Sacrifice: His Death
Scripture: Luke 23:44-49 (Reader 7)
The Sixth Candle Is Extinguished
We too shall die the third death. But not as Jesus does now, altogether alone.
When Jim Vroon moved to hospice to die, the Lord went with him. When Larry Terpstra slipped beyond the reach of the physicians, Jesus went with him. For Jesus does in fact in history, in our world, die the death.
And so it comes to pass:
They whip him. He feels the lash, and he bleeds. They plait a wreath from tough briar weed: they press it upon his head. He feels the thorns, he feels the derision, he knows.
They force him to bear the cross-beam outside the city. All their action declares him an “exile” now; a Cain in everything except that they couldn’t kill Cain. They will kill this Jesus.
They drive the spikes through his flesh into a grainy wood. He feels the dull separation of cartilage and bone. They hoist the wood to an empty space between heaven and earth; when it drops in its socket, his own weight begins the final business of killing him. And the natural elements will hasten the end.
As with us, the corporeal dying of the Christ is the breakdown of every relationship essential to life.
The Natural Relationship is made his enemy: exposure to the hot sun, to the dry air, to any weather the wind may bring. On the cross his arms lose strength and his body hangs down from his shoulder sockets, the weight must close his rib cage. He cannot breathe. His body is suffocating itself. Humans who make a profession of killing other humans do it very well, with a sharp awareness of pain, and even with fine irony.
Jesus whispers while he hangs on the public hill.
“Woman, behold your son.”
“Yes, today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Then suddenly he makes a loud, inarticulate shout: a human roar in darkness. It has been dark for six hours. And Jesus screams one scream—which sounds oddly like a warrior’s cry of triumph.
And so he lowers his head between the wings of his shoulders, and he leans forward, and he faces the earth, and he dies.
The Lord Jesus Christ expels the little wind left in his lungs, and he dies.
For you and me.
Hymn: “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” PsH 385, PH 78, TH 254, TWC 208
His Fourth Sacrifice: Forsaken
Scripture: Hebrews: 5:7-9 (Reader 8)
The Seventh Candle Is Extinguished
By this final sacrifice Jesus takes the sting from death and the victory from the grave. By this death he completes the long cosmic drama which we began by our rebellion and which had to end in an absolute dying: Jesus accepts that dying himself.
He finishes what we started.
Jesus dies absolutely the fourth death; and so the church confesses: “He descended into Hell.”
- Communal Relationships Sundered
Hell begins when all the world turns away from the defeated, iniquitous Jesus.
This moment becomes the very center of human history. In this moment, no one loves him, no one believes in him, everyone self-righteously separates from him and cries for crucifixion—because every human among us desires the annihilation of our sins, our guilt, our wretchedness, and in this moment Jesus is our sin, our guilt, our wretchedness. “Take it away!” we beg the Father. “Please take my transgression away!”
And God does. God answers this most humble and serious prayer. How often have we prayed it? God hears it every time and grants it:
He lays upon Jesus the chastisement that makes us whole, and by those stripes we are healed. This is what Hell is, to be despised by everyone.
- Internal Relationship Sundered
And this is what Hell is, to despise oneself.
Jesus agrees with the world’s rejection. He does not dispute it. He accepts it and loathes himself more than anyone else could loathe him, even his enemies.
For the righteous Christ hates sin. The righteous Christ has been obedient unto the end. Righteous and perfect and obedient, Christ is the antithesis of sin.
And yet at the same time, Jesus on the cross is sin—the very thing itself.
Sin is more than a burden he happens to be bearing, more than a job he must accomplish, more than a single characteristic of his person. If it were merely a heavy load, he could hate it without hating himself. If it were merely a duty or a quality, he could hate it with a hatred that needn’t encompass his self.
The apostle Paul writes: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.” At this moment, Jesus is himself the thing his entire divinity and his goodness must utterly reject. He is the thing he abhors.
All the world is crying. “You are guilty!”
And Jesus whispers, “You are right, I am guilty.” Our sins are now his person. “Yes, I deserve to die.” He has not even the mild reprieve that an innocent man forced to die an unjust death might feel. For the death is just. Nor can he take solace in the fact he is performing a wonderful love on behalf of the world. There is nothing lovely about him now.
“In order that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” writes Paul, “he became sin.”
Jesus knows what he has become. He knows himself very well, even now. And He hates it. This is Hell.
- Natural Relationship Sundered
In the fourth death Jesus is separated not only from the material elements of the created world, wind and earth and sun and water; he is cut off as well from its most basic elements, time and space.
That is to say: in the moment when Jesus dies on behalf of humanity, there is no time by which the moment may be brought to an end. It is, paradoxically, an eternal instant. Even though he shall surely arise again, in that moment the resurrection is no comfort, because in that moment death is the totality of his experience. That moment, while Jesus dwells therein, is clean cut off from all creation, divorced from the changings and motions of time. It is, while it is, forever.
And this is right! This is the full penalty of the Primal Rebellion, that our sin should be banished finally and altogether from the realms of the Creator, from time (which would otherwise allow for hope, even the imagination of a reprieve) and from space (which would otherwise imply some small relationship somewhere to exist, and life thereby—a cool drop of water, say, on the tip of a finger).
Between this absolutely dying Christ and all the rest of the cosmos “there is a great gulf fixed; so that they which would pass from hence to him cannot; neither can he, who would come thence, pass to them.” That gulf defines what Hell is, one’s utter separation from every thing of God, creation, time, space.
Now Jesus is in a Nowhere. And there he must be timelessly. Nothing but “this” can be for him, ever and ever. This is what we deserved. This is what he bore for us.
This is what makes the thought of any death so terrifying.
But this is the death we need not die—the fourth death.
- Primal Relationship Sundered
Finally, it is not only from the things of God that Jesus is separated, but also from God.
The logical end of our abandonment of God is that God should, in effect, abandon us. But in the eternal instant of his greatest sacrifice, Jesus is the sin of all humanity, which God now gives over unto itself, unto its self alone. God departs from Jesus.
This, then, is a cry from Hell: Eli, Eli, lama sabbachthani! His solitude is, in every spiritual precinct, now perfect. Nothing remains for Jesus. He has drunk the cup completely. God is gone.
“My God! My God! Why has thou forsaken me!”
And when no answer comes, when the cosmos is altogether silent, damnation is accomplished. “It is finished.” It is done.
This is, therefore, the absolute solitude that causes terrors in our every Secondary Death. This is what we contemplate when we are lonely and sad in the third act of grief. And this is the curse that every human somehow understands and anticipates.
Ah, but It is finished.
Solo: “Were You There” PsH 377, PH 102, SFL 167, TH 260, TWC 218
The Tolling of the Bell
Departing in Silence
The resurrection of Jesus Christ in three days comes like a trumpet blast, a bright cry of triumph. By raising Jesus bodily and glorified, God declares to all the world that he accepts the sacrifice. He is satisfied. In Christ the old account is closed.
There is now no Hell for those who hide in Jesus!
No longer is God the indifferent Deity whom my griever knew in the horrible period of her despair. Neither is God sheer Infinitude to our miserable finitude. Nor is he the just Judge executing sentences we know we deserve but which we cannot tolerate.
Now God is seen in the face of Jesus, the Shepherd who calls us by name:
“[Name], do you love me?”