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The tradition of the Tenebrae service

Candles are gradually extinguished during the Tenebrae service, leaving the sanctuary in darkness.
Candles are gradually extinguished during the Tenebrae service, leaving the sanctuary in darkness.

Although the Tenebrae service is a long-standing tradition in the Christian church, not all denominations include this experience in their observation of Holy Week. In addition, different churches approach the Tenebrae service in different ways. However, most Tenebrae services do share certain characteristics regardless of the denomination or individual congregation.

Derived from the Latin, Tenebrae means "darkness" or "shadows." The goal of the Tenebrae service is to help the congregation experience the dark, difficult aspects of Christ's passion. It is usually observed on Good Friday, but some congregations prefer Maundy Thursday or even the Saturday before Easter.

In general, the Tenebrae service involves readings from the Bible narrating the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. The readings are divided into sections, and after each section a candle is extinguished, eventually leaving the sanctuary in darkness. Usually a single candle is then returned to the altar, signifying the hope of Christ's resurrection.

Several churches in the Denver area are offering Tenebrae services this Holy Week. Deer Park UMC held their Tenebrae service last night, on Maundy Thursday. A joint service with Risen Lord Lutheran Church of Conifer, it began with traditional communion. Gospel readings were alternated with choral pieces that illuminated or built upon the events in the scriptures. After each reading, symbolic items such as the ministers' stoles, the communion cups, and the cross that usually sits on the altar were removed, and candles were extinguished.

After the reading of the last verses, narrating Jesus' burial, the church was plunged into darkness, accompanied by a loud sound symbolizing the stone closing Jesus' tomb. Worshipers departed in silence to reflect on the Passion of Christ, and to prepare for Easter Sunday.

The Tenebrae service was led by Pastor Kay Krebs and Intern Pastor Vivian Hiestand from Deer Park, as well as Pastor George Jacobson from Risen Lord. The choir consisted of members of both church's regular choirs. The musical litany came from "A Service of Shadows," a Tenebrae setting by Lani Smith. The joint service between the two churches is one of several holiday collaborations, including the recent Christmas Eve service, also featuring joined choirs.