An introduction to Tenebrae

The Tenebrae service which we participate in this evening has been celebrated since early in the 4th century. Tenebrae is a Latin word and it means either darkness or shadows. It speaks of the shadows which closed in on Jesus as the evening passed into night, and the new day brought death on the cross, deserted by his followers. The lighted candles are used as symbols of the disciples who were with Jesus. The darkness and shadows represent the darkness that covered the earth when Jesus died.
The evening starts with a cup of tea and fellowship, catching up on the news and sharing a joke.
The reason we do this is that this is exactly how things started on the night Jesus was betrayed. He went into the Upper Room with his disciples where they sat and ate dinner, enjoying being together, enjoying each other’s company.
In this atmosphere of fellowship, as they sat around the dinner table, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion.
After he served Holy Communion to his disciples, Jesus stripped off his outer garments and took a bowl of water and washed his disciples’ feet. You may well feel anxious about having someone wash your feet this evening, even in the Upper Room Peter felt anxious, but remember what Jesus said to Him, “Unless I wash your feet you can have no part of me”.
As we allow our feet to be washed, we are surrendering to being a part of the body of Christ.
After he had washed his disciples’ feet, Judas left and Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane.
After the foot washing, we will light the candles on the table and turn out all the lights. As the readers read to us the biblical record of that night, they will extinguish the candles in front of them to symbolise the advancing darkness, the encroaching shadows that overcame Jesus, due to the increasing hatred of his enemies, the collapse of loyalty among his disciples, and the looming shadow of suffering and death.
At last the central candle, which is known as the Christ Candle and symbolises the life of Jesus, will also be extinguished. This symbolises the death of Jesus. It is the moment of truth for us as we contemplate Jesus’ death for our salvation. It is a time when we face our own need for repentance and renewal.
In the darkness we will listen to a solo woman sing, and we remember that it was the women who cared for Jesus who were the last to leave as he was laid in the tomb of one of his followers, all alone.
After a brief pause the Christ candle will be lit again in prophetic hope of the coming Easter dawn.
After it is relit, we will leave the church in silence and sombreness.