A Service of Shadows
The service of Tenebrae, meaning ‘darkness’ or ‘shadows’, has been observed since medieval times. Traditionally the services were a prolonged meditation on Christ's suffering. Fifteen candles (fourteen dark-coloured and one white) were arranged on a triangular candelabra. Fourteen psalms were read, each followed by a choir response. After each reading one candle was extinguished until only the white candle, often called the Christ candle, remained burning. The Christ candle was removed then later brought back to symbolise the anticipated resurrection of Christ. The services were concluded with the ‘strepitus’ – a loud noise said to symbolise the forces of evil and darkness or the earthquake at Christ's death.
Tenebrae services today follow many of the ancient customs. Scripture passages are read – usually portions of the Passion story, and candles are extinguished. The Tenebrae service always has a sombre tone, reflected in the darkness, in the accounts of Christ's suffering, in the music, and in the silence of the people as they leave. But underlying the sombre feeling is the anticipation of the resurrection, mirrored in the Christ candle.