catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 5 :: 2008.03.07 — 2008.03.21


Tenebrae and the enactment of faith

Looking back, I’m wondering if it was during my first Tenebrae service that I fell in love with liturgical ritual. It’s certainly one of the possibilities. See, the church I grew up in was more of a sermon-centric church. Besides occasional baby-sprinkled baptisms and quarterly Communions (grape juice in small plastic cups and crustless bread cubes), we didn’t enact a lot of ritual. I’m not surprised, in retrospect, that I learned to love the few solemn enactments we did have, which included the Advent wreath and the occasional Passion Week Tenebrae service.

In dark December, with each passing week during the season of anticipation of Christ’s coming into the world, we celebrated the lighting of an extra candle on the altar each week. Watching the flickering flames, I could meditate on the story better through the weekly lightening of the room. Sometimes there would even be a service on Christmas Eve when we would each hold wax-drippy but mesmerizingly-flamed candles in the dark church in witness that the light had truly come into the darkness and that the darkness had not overcome it.

Those were amazing moments, but they were just the beginning of the story. It was in the melty spring, when we would sometimes fill our church with intended darkness during the powerfully emotional Tenebrae service, that the reality and depth of that threatening darkness really came home to me. I would usually enter the sanctuary with nothing more spiritual than thankfulness that the sermon was a lesser part of the service that day. But between readings like Psalm 22—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and strains like “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the candles at the front of the sanctuary would gradually be snuffed out, and with them, the whole room would gradually be dimmed, and my awareness of that darkness would grow. By the end, when the last candle was put out, I was almost able to put myself in the place of the disciples—their sorrow, their fear, their darkness. A few times I was able to live the experience well enough that I, like Thomas, needed to see the flickering flame of the Christ candle spring up on Easter morning to help me live the joy of the next step in the process.

Whether or not it was during those Tenebrae services that the seeds of my present liturgy addiction were planted, I still particularly love the rituals that surround Passion Week and Easter, when we re-enact each year the stories most central to our faith. For some people, it may be enough to hear the stories and have their meaning preached, or watch a movie of it. I appreciate these gifts as well, but for me it’s these annual solemn enactments that most help me understand—and once again, to believe—the narratives central to my Christian faith.

And so, whenever possible, I go each year to celebrate with a variety of liturgical churches the traditions that have been the most meaningful to me during Passion Week.

Palm Sunday, for me, is associated with a monastery I know, where I as a visitor enter with the monks waving palm fronds, then watch and listen with bated breath as the monks chant the entire Passion Week narrative from one of the Gospels. As they pass the words back and forth through the air, the mystery of it all wafts down from the heavy wood rafters and settles on top of my palm frond near my feet.

The church I belong to is my favorite place to spend Maundy Thursday. There, we sit at long tables and pass loaves and cups of wine around. “The body of Christ for you,” I say to the person to my right, tearing off a hunk of bread and passing the rest on, having heard the same words from the person to my left. And then, dipping my bread into the dark red wine: “The blood of Christ for you.” As the wine-soaked crusty bread slides down my throat, it sticks a bit as I remember the events surrounding the first time this meal was shared, but as it moves into my stomach its warmth spreads through me.

On Friday, it’s Tenebrae, when the choruses swell my throat with longing and increased awareness as the fifth light is dimmed. “When I survey the wondrous cross / on which the Prince of Glory died,” we sing, cuing another layer to be added to the darkness. Then, “What wondrous love is this / that caused the Lord of bliss / to bear the dreadful curse, for my soul, for my soul.” My eyes tear up as the final candle goes dark, and my heart feels heavy as I leave the church in dim silence.

Last but far from least, Saturday night will always be connected with the Eastern Orthodox vigils I’ve attended. At midnight, the whole congregation literally files outside and clusters around the main door, shielding their recently-lighted candles from the inevitable wind. The priest literally knocks on the door, and after he recites Psalm 24—“Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in”—the door is opened from within, and the whole congregation bursts into chanted choruses of “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”

It is then—on early Sunday, after a week of remembering the darkness and the suffering—that the joy, the reality, the good news, of Easter is possible. By the time I get home from those vigil services, the refrain is pulsing in me, the weight has lifted, and the hope has sprung anew. Christ is indeed risen.

I’m profoundly thankful for the childhood services that gave me a glimpse of these possibilities, because it’s not enough for me to hear bits of the story each year. Perhaps it means my faith is that of Thomas’s—I have to see, to touch, to believe. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that these performative Passion Week rituals help me to understand the central, hard-to-understand events at the center of the Christian faith year by year, and I’m profoundly thankful for that.

Those palm fronds, after all, take on more weight as they are followed by the story reminding me what followed them. And the meal seems more urgent when the bread and wine are accompanied by a consciousness of the snuffing of the candles that will come the next day. And sometimes, just sometimes, it takes standing outside with many others in the dark and the cold to appreciate the true joy that pulsates through my veins with the re-entry into the warmth of the church, the light of the candles, and the echoing of the refrain, sung over and over again. Each year I believe it a bit more: that Christ is risen from the dead. That he trampled down death by death. That he bestowed life. On me, and on all others who have believed, and all who will ask to believe. That He is risen, He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

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