What is Tenebrae?

This is an example of a 15 candle tenebrae hearse.

Tenebrae is a series of prayer services from a very old monastic practice which is done during the Triduum, or the three days preceding Easter. It is practiced at the time of morning prayer, and if you happen to be part of a Dominican parish, the friars are likely to make this a part of the parish’s prayer experience on these very holy days. Psalms are chanted (Gregorian chant), and there are a series of three lessons from the Lamentations of Jeremiah that are also chanted.

A candelabra (the tenebrae “hearse”) of 15 candles is lit prior to the beginning of the service, and as the psalms and lessons are chanted, the candles are gradually extinguished, leaving the church in semi-darkness at the end.  Tenebrae is Latin for “shadows” or darkness”.

The solemness of this service always moves me, and I look forward to participating in Tenebrae at St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco each year. This year I’ll be singing Lesson II from Lamenations 1:4-6. The psalm tones are particularly poignant and assist these passages to invite us to share in the sufferings of all those who are in anguish and to hold them in our hearts as we enter into these days of remembering the suffering of Christ. We remember that Christ’s suffering still continues among so many on our planet.

The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the appointed feasts;
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;
her maidens have been dragged away, and she herself suffers bitterly.
Her foes have become the head,
her enemies prosper because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
From the daughter of Zion
has departed all her majesty.
Her princes have become like harts that find no pasture:
they fled without strength before the pursuer.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
return to the Lord your God.

For more information about Tenebrae, please go to this link provided by St. Dominic’s Church in Benicia.

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