The service of Tenebrae (the Latin word for “darkness” or “shadows”) invites us to contemplate through symbol and shadow; through Scripture and song the incredibly moving events of Holy Week. Tenebrae, prepares us for the events of Christ’s passion, steeling us for the long, often emotional journey of Holy Week.
The service has its origins in the ancient monastic practice of the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. Tenebrae has for centuries been applied to two of these Divine offices, the night and early morning services of Matins and Lauds. In fact, the service was originally observed on the evening before or early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The current Tenebrae service, found in the Book of Occasional Services, draws on material from each of these former three offices. By so doing, it provides an extended meditation on the events of Holy Week. Therefore we observe Tenebrae on Wednesday evening.
This is a contemplative service, rife with symbols, shadows, and silence. The purpose of Tenebrae is to recreate the emotional aspects of the passion story. It is not to be engaged at a logical, thinking level, but an emotional feeling level. Contemplative prayer and worship requires patience. It is a chance to be still and know that God is God, a chance to let Jesus speak to us on a very deep spiritual level. Contemplative prayer challenges us to get out of our heads and into our hearts.