Into the Shadows: Discovering the Reverent Beauty of Tenebrae
Explore the Symbolism and History of this Lesser-Known Catholic Tradition
"What's the event called?" I remember trying to decipher what the person was saying on the other end of the phone line. I'd never heard of Tenebrae. And apparently, I'm not alone in that.
But that's the Catholic faith for you. So many breathtaking traditions. So much beauty. If only we discover it.
The Tenebrae tradition is an often overlooked aspect of Holy Week. It can be traced back to the early Christian Church, where it was a form of prayer that took place in the early morning hours of each day.
The name "Tenebrae" is derived from the Latin word for "shadows" or "darkness," and the practice involves gradually extinguishing candles as a symbol of Christ's suffering and death.
"As the candles are gradually extinguished, we are reminded of the darkness and despair that accompanied Christ's death, but also of the hope and light that emerged from that darkness with his resurrection."
The form has varied slightly over the years. Traditionally it was held on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of Holy Week, culminating in the Good Friday service. But now it's typically celebrated on the Wednesday of Holy Week.
The service consists of a series of psalms and readings, accompanied by the extinguishing of candles until only a single candle remains. This candle is then hidden or taken away, symbolizing the darkness and despair that accompanied Christ's death.
Traditionally, a unique candle holder is utilized for the service called a Tenebrario. The Tenebrario is typically made of wood or bronze and consists of a long, central candlestick with three branches or arms, one on either side. The central candlestick represents Christ, while the three branches represent the three days leading up to his resurrection.
During the Tenebrae service, 15 candles are placed on the Tenebrario, 14 of which are smaller, and the central one is the largest. As each psalm or reading is completed, one of the smaller candles is extinguished until only the central candle remains. This central candle is then removed from the Tenebrario and hidden.
The Tenebrario is an essential element of the Tenebrae service, as it visually represents the themes of darkness and light central to this tradition. The gradual extinguishing of the candles on the Tenebrario symbolizes the fading of Christ's presence in the world. In contrast, the central candle represents his ultimate victory over sin and death through his resurrection.
So, whether you are a lifelong Catholic or simply curious about this lesser-known tradition, attending a Tenebrae service can be a powerful way to deepen your Lenten journey and experience the transformative power of Holy Week.
Wishing you a Blessed Holy Week.