On Palm Sunday, April 9, the choir of the American TFP sang in a Tenebrae service, arranged by Father Andrew McCormick of Sacred Heart Church, in Swedesburg, Pennsylvania. The service was presided over by Father Robert Pasley of Mater Ecclesia parish in Camden, New Jersey. Father James Mayer and Father Peter Burkauskas served as Deacons.
While this was the fifteenth annual Tenebrae service Fr. McCormick has arranged, the tradition dates back to the ancient church. Essentially, a Tenebrae service consists in singing Matins and Lauds of the three days leading up to Easter.
The ceremony is named Tenebrae, meaning darkness, because of a highly symbolic practice, probably dating back to the fifth century. Before the singing begins, a large candelabrum is placed in the center of the church, full of lit candles, which illuminate the chapel. This symbolizes Christ, Who is the Light of the world.
As the ceremony progresses, one by one these candles are ceremonially snuffed out, slowly plunging the chapel into darkness and symbolizing Christ’s death. The mournful songs and increasing darkness create an atmosphere of somber reflection on Christ’s death that can be well imagined, especially since the ceremony was originally conducted in the dark hours following midnight.
When only one lit candle remains, it is removed from the candelabrum and hidden behind the altar. Then, a violent crashing noise is made by beating church books, or in Fr. McCormick’s parish by slamming the door to the sacristy! This symbolizes the convulsions that nature endured with the death of Christ and the renting of the Temple veil.
Taken together, these elements produce an atmosphere that is unrivaled in moving the soul to ponder the great mysteries surrounding the Passion and Death of Our Lord and representing the true spirit of Holy Week.
“The true genius of the Tenebrae service,” said TFP choir director John Ritchie, “is the overall effect that is created. While the sorrowful melodies and increasing darkness move the soul to sentiments of sorrow and compunction, the intellect is stimulated to the same end by pondering the touching passages of scripture that are sung. It creates an effect that is truly awesome.”
This effect was easy to observe on the participants who attended this year’s Tenebrae service at Sacred Heart Church. It was easy to perceive in their demeanors that they had been profoundly touched by the true spirit of Holy Week, which consists in a profound sorrow for sin, which necessitated the death of the Savior, mitigated only slightly by hope in the Redemption.