Tenebrae is an ancient Holy Week service celebrated on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae, a latin word, means darkness, but the 15 lighted candles at the heart of this service say that darkness never has its way. The 15 candles stand for Jesus, his twelve disciples and the two disciples who leave Jerusalem for Emmaus after Jesus’ death, having lost all hope.
In the Tenebrae service, the candles are extinguished one by one, as the scriptures are read. His disciples leave him, one betrays him. Jesus goes to death alone, but his light remains burning.
Psalm 69 is read at Tenebrae on Holy Thursday:
“I have become an outcast to my brothers,
a stranger to my mother’s sons,
because zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.”
On Holy Thursday Jesus leaves Bethany with his disciples to celebrate the Passover feast in the evening in an upper room in Jerusalem near the temple. At the table he tells them their faith will be shaken and they will leave him.
The Tenebrae readings tell us Jesus is our great high priest whose love never fails:
“We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
(Hebrews 4, 14-16)
These days of Holy Week we approach “the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for timely help.”
A final reading on Holy Thursday from an Easter homily by St. Melito of Sardis reminds us: “He is the one who brought us out of darkness into light, out of slavery into freedom, out of death into life, and made us a people chosen to be his own. He is the Passover which is our salvation.”
We celebrated Tenebrae this morning, Holy Thursday, at Immaculate Conception Monastery in Jamaica, New York.