Thinking Out Loud

March 26, 2016

A New Holy Week Experience

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:10 am

Last night for the first time, we attended a Tenebrae service in an Anglican (Canadian equivalent of Episcopal) Church. We like adventure. Wikipedia defines it best:

Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) is a Christian religious service celebrated in the Holy Week within Western Christianity, on the evening before or early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae is distinctive for its gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings and psalms are chanted or recited.

Very different from the Evangelical service I’d attended almost twelve hours earlier the same day. That one had 1,500 people over 3 services. This one had about 50 of us in a small church building that’s only 4 years away from being 200 years old. No welcome and announcements. No offering. No homily or sermon. No musical instruments. Just 100% scripture, either sung or spoken.

Probably the most striking feature was the use of texts not normally associated with Holy Week. Excerpts from Lamentations, and the use of Psalm 51 (and Psalm 150) seemed unusual given our place in the church calendar. I felt like the idea was to capture the emptiness, the bleakness that The Twelve, the women and the friends of Jesus would have felt at the cross, and that evening, and into Saturday.

What did they talk about? They were scattered somewhat, but they would have had homes to return to. We know some discussed a return to fishing. Did Matthew think about looking up his friends in the Tax Department?

What went through their minds?

That’s my subjective take on it. I can’t speak for what others were thinking. I would love to speak with those who wrote the liturgy.

At the end, the officiants, the choir and the congregation all leave in silence. Actually, we drove several blocks before anyone said anything. I’m a very social person and saw a few people we knew, and normally, on an occasion like this I would have struck up a conversation, but instead we left; us to our home, them to theirs.

My wife described it as “quiet, and thoughtful and centering.”

All in all, it was a service and a form we had never witnessed before where we came with no preconceived notions, no basis of comparison; and left with our thoughts full.

In contrast to the music we heard last night; our video today is a repeat of a song we’ve used here before. At The Foot of the Cross performed by Kathryn Scott.

Yesterday’s post at Christianity 201 started out as a simply copy-and-paste of an older article with a few quick revisions, but was expanded and after and hour of consideration became much more.


  1. Paul, We had a tennebrae service last night with about 500 including some children there. It was sobering and thoughtful. We had musical instruments and the choir as well as Communion and scripture read by four or five men. This was at Faith Bible Church in Cincinnati. And we came and left in silence except for a few whispers.

    Comment by dottieparish — March 26, 2016 @ 8:46 pm

  2. Hi Paul, finding who wrote it will be a trick. It is adapted from monastic usage going back to the 8th Century. It is in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services. There is another version written by a group of Episcopalian youth and young adult ministers who edited it to switch the Lamentations readings for Old Testament prophecy to follow Jesus’ journey to the cross. It is starting to be passed around and has been used in various Episcopal, Anglican and Evangelical settings…not to jump into the numbers game but by about 6500 I would guess.

    Comment by Matt Marino — March 28, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    • Interesting. In the audience I saw (but of course didn’t speak to, because we left in silence) a couple of friends, one of whom was raised Baptist, the other Pentecostal who were also visiting as we were. I’d like to debrief the experience with them sometime, but I think the newer version of the service you’re describing would be more focused, given the season.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 28, 2016 @ 11:25 am

      • I first saw it 7 years ago. I loved the symbolism of the fading loyalty of the disciples and the chanted antiphons that gave it a plaintive feeling. The limitation was that the Lamentations readings seemed to dilute the focus on Jesus and put the emphasis on the flakiness of the disciples. We wanted it to be a meditation on the cross. If you send me an email address I can send you a link to the files on Dropbox. We did it at St. John the Divine in Houston for the first time Friday night. It was very powerful.

        Comment by Matt Marino — March 28, 2016 @ 11:41 am

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