What's up with Tenebrae?
As an RC kid in the 1950s, I used to see the words "Tenebrae" and "Sunrise Service" in the church ads in the paper for Protestant churches. It used to strike me as typical -- you gotta give them an E for effort, they're really trying to do the right thing, but this is what happens when you try to be church apart from the Church he put here, tinker around with the pieces of the former unity apart from their source and come up with all sorts of stuff, part of it the real deal and part of it whatever Reformer's ideas of the real deal one follows. (Hey Schuetz, you reading this?)
I mean, what's up with Tenebrae. Everybody knows -- well, everybody who's a dedicated altar boy thinking of maybe becoming a priest -- that Tenebrae isn't the church's main service on Good Friday or even of one day. It's a collective reference to Matins and Lauds for the last three days of Holy Week, originally said in the night and early morning but pushed back in the Middle Ages to the evening before! Monks do that kind of thing all the time -- that's how we got "noon", from pushing back None, the office of the ninth hour in the Roman (city/republic/empire, not church) day, about three in the afternoon, to right after the sixth hour office at midday, Sext, so you can work the fields all afternoon. Poor guys, they don't even know that "afternoon" is just that, after None, heck, most of us don't either, so why be surprised at having a Matins service, a word coming from the Latin for "dawn" and giving us our word matinee for a daytime showing, at night instead of the service that's supposed to be there at the ninth hour when he died (1500 hours if you know how to REALLY tell time!) which we ourselves often put off until later so people can get there after work! Maybe the whole thing's our fault originally, messing around with stuff. I mean, if you gotta knock off work to go in at 1500 to pray None, just do it; if you gotta knock off work to get to Good Friday service at 1500, just do it. Some places let people off about 1, some places they still don't go to work at all Good Friday. So here they are having "Tenebrae", a bunch of Protestants doing what's supposed to be a three day monastic service instead of the day's normal parish liturgy, and here I am in an ordinary parish and have never been to a real Tenebrae in my life! Oh well, at least we have it someplace and I know what it is, but you gotta give them E for effort and they'll probably walk right in. (That's a Catholic thing -- "walk right in" means walk right in to heaven without having to spend any time in Purgatory getting rid of what still needs to be gotten rid of.)
The heart of the real Tenebrae is its three "nocturnes" or readings. These are: The Lamentations of Jeremias (Jeremiah); St Augustine's commentary on Psalm 54 (in the Vulgate, Psalm 55 to Protestants); St Paul Hebrews 4:15-5:10 and 9:11-15. And of course there's the putting out of candles, one at a time after each Psalm. My first experience of anything by the name Tenebrae was in the mid 90s in WELS. (I first made profession of faith especially as taught in the Small Catechism in a WELS parish 15 December, 1996.) Holy Week consisted of Communion (in the sense of both consecration and communion, though in that context you'd probably raise an eyebrow if you said "mass") on Maundy Thursday with particular remembrance of Jesus' institution of Communion at the Last Supper, then "Tenebrae" on Good Friday, then nothing, meaning no Easter Vigil at all, one of the most ancient services of the church, until, hey, "Sunrise Service" on Easter, then pancakes, with a later "Festival" service for those of us who might rise with the Son but not the sun. I wondered a little bit, having just finished the Tappert Book of Concord (we didn't have the "McCain" Book of Concord yet!) and thinking I had cast off the Roman Catholic church for the real catholic church, if maybe I didn't end up just Protestant after all!
There was the putting out of candles thing, but nothing else of the office of Tenebrae. It was constructed instead around the Seven Last Words, with each passage read followed by an appropriate prayer and hymn and putting out a candle. No Lamentations, no St Augustine, no St Paul, or if my professors at my Benedictine university are to be believed, whoever wrote Hebrews. Totally out of my experience, totally new to my experience! But I'm thinking hey, maybe there is a better service to be using (even WELS has a version of the traditional Good Friday service!) but the Seven Last Words are his seven last words and this is Good Friday, at least nobody's got it mixed up with Holy Thursday and offering Communion or anything, and I'm going with it, each "word" leading to the end. Consummatum est, it is finished. And I'm sitting there in darkness thinking, what is finished? Jesus? Hardly. He is risen, and we will soon celebrate that. Sin? Hardly. The world goes right on sinning, and me with it despite myself. But right now, what is finished is the sacrifice that takes away my sin and the sin of the whole world. Passover indeed, from bondage to the promised land. Real nice thoughts to have all safe here in church but before long I'll be back out there where real nice thoughts are hard to maintain a lot of the time. And then it happened.
Strepitus! It all came to-gether. The promise, the old covenant, was now closed, complete, and the fulfillment was here! Et antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui, over ancient forms departing new rites of grace prevail, says the hymn Tantum Ergo. For real. So for real the earth could not support nor the sky shine on the injustice which is my justification. And most of all, the veil to the Holy of Holies in the Temple is rent asunder by the full and final High Priest and the mercy seat of God open wide, and all who are sprinkled with the blood of the full and final Passover Lamb can, well, walk right in! And so I shall, but for right now, I'll depart in darkness and silence, stunned that someone just took the bullet I had coming, died so that I might live, took my guilt and gave me his innocence, not to wallow in survivor's guilt as if this were by accident, good for me but bad for him, or even the supreme gesture of another human, but stunned for the moment that this is precisely what he came to do, on purpose, God so loving his children that he offered himself for me, for us, and opens wide his mercy.
I have come to love the Tenebrae service more than any other in our observance. Tenebrae in my present LCMS parish is little different. Not the Seven Last Words, but the Passion account of John read in seven sections, with an appropriate hymn after each and a petition based on the prayers after the Johanine Passion reading in the traditional Good Friday service found as "The Bidding Prayer" in TLH p. 116, and of course the candle putting out thing. And some things that usually set confessional types right on edge -- female acolytes, a "praise band" as well as choir and organ, a time for young disciples aka children's sermon. Well, as they say in my part of town, It's all good. Yeah it's all good bro. There was O Sacred Head too, to chime in with my basso grosso. It's all good. I still love the traditional service of the church for Good Friday. But it ain't got the Bam. The temple curtain is aside, the High Priest has entered and the mercy seat is open!
Speaking of the Temple, maybe next year I can get them to work in Lamentations. It's supposed to be there anyway, but there's more to it than that. Just as the New Covenant is an organic outgrowth of the Old, so is worship in the New Covenant an organic outgrowth of worship in the Old. What is the mass anyway but a Christianised synagogue Sabbath service followed by a Messianic seder? In the Tenebrae with its traditional Lamentations though, instead of understanding worship in the New Covenant as an organic development of worship in the Old, here New Covenant worship actually anticipates what would happen to the worship of the Old after it did not accept the New.
Jesus said, Destroy this Temple and in three days I will build it up. They thought he meant the physical Temple in Jerusalem. Don't we always do that? Just a few days ago we thought great, here's the Messiah to cast off the Romans and begin the era of universal peace. God's just fine as long as it's our idea. But he meant himself. He is the Temple, he is the High Priest, he is the sacrifice. And you know what? He'd better be, because unless he is, we ought to call off the whole thing because he got what he deserved, not by claiming to be Messiah which we thought was a man anyway, but by claiming to be God, which is blasphemy punishable by death. He said he was God and he is but he was put to death. We say we're good people really and therefore all going to the same good place, but we're not yet we think we're going to live.
Well, the real Temple to which the physical Temple pointed, Jesus, was destroyed and in three days built back up. And just as he said, the generation that saw that had not passed away before the end of the world as previously known before it -- the Temple destroyed, the priesthood killed and scattered, the sacrifices ended. This happened by the Romans on the ninth of the Jewish month of Ab, which falls somewhere between what we call late July and mid August, in 70 AD, or CE (Common Era). And you know what? That was exactly the day on which the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, or BCE (Before the Common Era) and the people hauled off into captivity. Jeremiah told them it was coming, and after it came, though overwhelmed with what had happened, he told them this was not because the enemies' gods are stronger than ours but because ours is giving us what we deserve for our faithlessness, for which he was branded a traitor to his religion and people, flogged at the Temple and left for dead in a pit. His Lamentations was written at the destruction of the first Temple. Tisha Be'Av, or the Ninth of Ab, is marked in the synagogue with the reading of DT 4:25-40 for the Torah portion and Jeremiah 8:13-9:23 for the haftorah, or related reading from the Prophets. But that is not all. Guess what? In the evening of that day Jews gather for the reading of Eikha, which is -- Lamentations! One sits on the floor like a mourner rather than in a seat. It is a full fast day to the max -- no eating, no drinking, no bathing, no leather shoes, no perfume or make up, no sex, although you can smoke or go to work. Tradition has it the Messiah will be born on Tisha Be'Av, the only happy thing about the day.
At the conclusion of the Passover Seder, one sings "Next Year in Jerusalem". But the Last Seder was in Jerusalem, and the full and final Passover sacrifice has been offered, as we commemorate on this day. The Temple has already been destroyed though the physical one still for a time stands, and so, we read Lamentations. But this Temple will be raised again in three days! We read Lamentations not in mouring over the loss of two Temples and in hopes for a third, in fact not in mourning at all for the "Temple" but for our faithlessness which destroyed both the physical Temple and the Temple Jesus to which it pointed.
You looking for a purpose to drive your life? Wanna find your best life now? Wanna make things sensitive to seekers? Looking to put Jesus first? Well here it is, pal. We read Lamentations, and celebrate Holy Week in our various traditions and liturgies in union with believers before us, now, and to come, precisely and for no other reason than to profess ourselves and proclaim to those who don't know it yet the knowledge that the Temple is indeed raised up again after three days, with the mercy seat of the loving God who opened it for us open to all through the body and blood of the Passover Lamb, even Jesus the Christ!
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