Ancient to Modern: Tenebrae

As we approach the Easter season, I wanted to bring an often unknown but very powerful type of service to your attention. Practiced since medieval times, the Tenebrae service can be a powerful expression and meditation on Christ’s sacrifice. The Tenebrae service takes place during Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Though this service is usually practiced by more Liturgical denominations, I believe it can easily be adapted to work in any congregation.

Ancient-to-ModernThe word Tenebrae comes from the Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” It makes use of symbolism to symbolize the events of the last days of Christ. The most distinctive aspect of the service is the gradual move from light to darkness as readings and music trace the story and emotions of the event. This service is not designed to be a “happy” service, however the power of the service can easily be appreciated.

The core of the service starts with the church in candlelight. There are generally a number of candles. I have seen it with thirteen candles lit, twelve to symbolize the disciples as well as the Christ candle as well as seven candles to symbolize the seven last words of Christ. The service starts with a reading and then can be followed with a song. After that one candle is extinguished. After the first twelve candles are extinguished and only the Christ candle remains then Psalm 22:1-21 is read and the Christ candle is extinguished. As the last candle is put out, worshippers are left in darkness to contemplate the gravity of Christ’s sacrifice. If the service is done on Good Friday a loud noise can also be played during this time to signify the stone being rolled to seal the grave. After this, the lights are turned on just high enough so that people can see to leave and the congregation then leave in silence to contemplate the impact of Christ’s death and await the celebration of Easter and Jesus’ Resurrection. The purpose of the service is to recreate the agony of the events, and the congregation is left feeling unresolved because the story itself is not resolved until Easter.

This service can easily be adapted to fit your congregation. Instead of readings you can easily substitute media clips or drama. The beauty of the service is its simplicity and flexibility. Though it requires planning with care and attention to detail, it can be a great and powerful addition to your church’s Easter week.  If you haven’t finished your Easter week plans yet, consider adding a Tenebrae service to your Good Friday schedule.

These are just a few suggestions, if you have any more feel free to comment below.  Also if you want to talk about your personal experiences with Tenebrae services I would love to hear them.


Author: Robert Gifford

Robert currently serves as the Minister of Technical Arts at First Baptist Church of Lafayette and a Masters student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary studying Worship. With over 10 years in ministry, he brings a unique perspective combining years of experience leading worship, serving in media/tech arts ministries, and advanced study in church music and worship.

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