Friday, April 12, 2019

Holy Week, Part 4: Tenebrae

Previous parts in this series:

(Unfortunately, I don't have booklets for Tenebrae on Thursday or Friday. The structure is the same, with the differences noted in the article. Also note that this booklet was prepared for a Tenebrae liturgy with a less experienced choir, so most of the responsories are in psalm tones instead of the full Gregorian chant.)

We now come to the Sacred Triduum, the most sacred time of the year. In these three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, we solemnly recall the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, the perfect act of God's love that won for us our redemption. As with the rest of the year, the sacred liturgy is the public manifestation of our Catholic faith and devotion. Thus, the liturgy of the Triduum is very special. In the Divine Office, the verse Deus in adjutorium is omitted. Gloria Patri is never said, not even at the ends of psalms. The capitula, responsories, and hymns are all omitted. There is no final antiphon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Except Tenebrae, the Divine Office is only recited, not sung. (Recited in this case can mean either simply spoken or sung recto tono, meaning all on one pitch.)

Matins and Lauds of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday comprise the office of Tenebrae. The word tenebrae is Latin for “darkness.” Before 1955, the Masses for these three days were always held in the morning, so Tenebrae was anticipated the evening before. Thus, Tenebrae of Holy Thursday was sung Wednesday night, Tenebrae of Good Friday was sung Thursday night, and Tenebrae of Holy Saturday was sung Friday night. In 1955, the Masses were moved to the afternoons or evenings, and Tenebrae was required to be in the morning so as to not conflict with the evening Mass. However, as a general rule, Matins and Lauds are always allowed to be anticipated the evening before (as early as 2:00 p.m.), and Tenebrae is meant to be held in the dark, which is difficult in the morning. With the FSSP's new permission to use the pre-1955 Holy Week, it is unclear whether Tenebrae ought to be in the evening or morning. It is undoubtedly better in the evening.

The office of Tenebrae has some of the same characteristics as a funeral. It is, in a sense, a funeral for Jesus Christ. Like at funerals and other Masses for the Dead, the altar candles should be of unbleached wax if possible, and the organ is not played. On Thursday, the altar frontal is violet; on Friday and Saturday, it is bare. On Thursday, the cross is veiled in violet; on Friday, it may be veiled in either violet or black; on Saturday, it is not veiled.

One of the defining characteristics of Tenebrae is the gradual extinguishing of candles. On the Gospel side of the altar (left when facing it), there is a large, triangular candlestick with fifteen candles of unbleached wax. This candlestick is known as a hearse, because it originates from candlesticks placed at the head of the coffin during a funeral – another connection between Tenebrae and the funeral liturgy. After each psalm, one of the candles on the candlestick is extinguished, starting from the outside and progressing inward, ultimately leaving only the center candle still lit. This gradual extinguishing of candles and darkening of the church represents the absence of Christ, the light of the world, and our sorrow at his death. It also represents the disciples abandoning Jesus during his Passion.

After the prayers Aperi Domine, Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Apostles' Creed (pages 2-3 of the PDF booklet for Tenebrae of Holy Saturday), which always preface the hour of Matins, Tenebrae begins at once with the antiphon for the first psalm of the first nocturn. There is no Invitatory or hymn. The psalms at Matins are not the usual psalms for these days of the week; rather, they are prescribed specifically for this liturgy. They have a sorrowful and penitential character.

Nocturn I
In the first nocturn on Holy Thursday, we begin the Sacred Triduum by remembering our Lord in his Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. First is Psalm 68, opening with the words, “Salvum me fac, Deus!” “Save me, O God!” In this psalm, we cry to God for help and mercy, and we unite ourselves with Christ in his agony. It foreshadows our Lord's suffering and agony: “They gave me gall for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 68:22). Toward the end of the psalm, we are reassured that God will never abandon his people, just as, in Christ's agony, God sent him an angel to comfort him (Luke 22:43). Next, we sing Psalm 69, which is usually sung at Compline on Thursdays. Its opening verse, “Deus, in adjutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina,” (“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me,”) is the verse that normally opens each hour of the Divine Office. In this psalm, we implore God's help and renounce the enemy who seeks the ruin of our soul. Finally, in Psalm 70, we hope in God and put our trust in him through the even the greatest sorrow and suffering. Although Jesus suffered greatly in his agony and was tempted by the devil, he never wavered in his trust in God.

On Good Friday, we recall the Crucifixion of our Lord. We begin with Psalm 2, which rebukes the quarrelling kings and princes of this earth and praises the true and glorious King. His Kingdom will have no end and will rule over all of heaven and earth. Next, we sing Psalm 21, a long lament that foretells in great detail the Crucifixion of our Lord. This psalm was also sung at the Tract on Palm Sunday. It describes the Jews and Romans mocking our Lord and declaring, “He hoped in the Lord; let him rescue him, let him save him, if he loves him!” It speaks poetically of our Lord's demise on the Cross. Like on Maundy Thursday, the third psalm, Psalm 26, gives us some consolation with our hope in God.

Holy Saturday is perhaps the quietest day of the year. This is the sabbath day, on which our Lord lay peacefully in the tomb. We begin with Psalm 4 (pages 3-4), normally sung on Sundays at Compline. We can join our Lord in the ending of this psalm, “In peace itself I shall sleep and rest; / For in an abundance of hope, O Lord, you have made me secure.” Next is Psalm 14 (pages 5-6), an exhortation to holiness to be able to walk with God. Finally, once again, we conclude on a hopeful note, giving praise to God in Psalm 15 (pages 6-8) and expressing our hope in the Resurrection.

After the three psalms and their antiphons, there is a versicle and response followed by a silent Our Father (page 8). However, there are no absolutions or blessings before the readings. A responsory follows each reading as usual.

The readings for the first nocturn on all three days are taken from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah, an elaborate Hebrew acrostic poem that laments the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians (pages 9-17). They are sung to a special tone that is particularly beautiful and elaborate. Like the tone for the last part of the Passion at Mass, the tones for the Lamentations are very sorrowful and have the character of weeping. The Hebrew letter that begins each line of the Lamentations is sung to a short melisma.

The destruction of Jerusalem and captivity in Babylon foreshadows the Crucifixion of Jesus. Jeremiah's sorrow and lament expresses Christ's suffering in his Passion, as well as our own sorrow at the death of our Savior, our separation from God, and the wickedness of our sins. At the end of each reading, the lector does not sing, “Tu autem Domine...” but rather, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum, Deum tuum!” “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God!” pleading for the people of Jerusalem to repent from their wicked ways that led to the city's destruction. For us, this is a plea to repent of our sins.

The third reading of the first nocturn on Holy Saturday (pages 14-16) is the end of the Lamentations, Jeremiah's prayer to God for mercy and relief from the sufferings that the Jewish people endured in their captivity in Babylon (Lamentations 5:1-11). Without God, we are nothing and are capable of nothing; love and joy do not exist without God. The suffering and separation from God in Babylon represents the eternal suffering and eternal separation from God in hell that is prepared for those who reject God on earth. Just as heaven is the place of perfect love, hell is the place of perfect hatred. As we hear the Prophet Jeremiah's accounts of his sufferings in Babylon in this reading, we ought to be reminded of the horrors of sin and hell, and we ought to unite ourselves with Jeremiah's prayer for mercy.

Nocturn II
The second nocturn on Holy Thursday consists of Psalms 71, 72, and 73. The first of these, Psalm 71, adores Jesus Christ as King of heaven and earth. Psalm 72 renounces those who are proud and selfish. Psalm 73 laments the suffering caused by sin but expresses our trust fully in God. Once again, the third psalm of the nocturn has the theme of hope and trust in God.

On Good Friday, in the second nocturn, we begin with Psalm 37, the third of the seven penitential psalms, which expresses God's wrath and the punishment he has prepared for those who reject him. It is followed by Psalm 39, which praises God for his mercy and for saving us from this indignation. The nocturn concludes with a prayer of hope in God in Psalm 53.

Finally, on Holy Saturday, as we rest with our Lord in the tomb, we begin the second nocturn with Psalm 23 (pages 18-19), which begins by praising creation and then adores Jesus Christ, through whom all was created, “The king of glory, the Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.” Next is Psalm 26 (pages 19-21), which we recall from the first nocturn on Holy Thursday, followed by Psalm 29 (pages 21-23), a song of praise to God for his grace. All three of the psalms in the second nocturn on Holy Thursday have a character of praise and adoration.

On all three days of the Triduum, the readings of the second nocturn are from St. Augustine of Hippo's commentary on the Psalms. On Holy Thursday, they are from St. Augustine's commentary on Psalm 54:1: “Hearken, O God, to my prayer, and despise not my plea; give heed to me and hear me!” On Good Friday, they are from his commentary on Psalm 63:2: “You have sheltered me from the conspiring of the malicious, from the throngs of evildoers.” On Holy Saturday, they are from his commentary on Psalm 63:7: “Deep may a man's heart be, but God shall be exalted” (pages 23-26). All three of these psalm verses may be applied to our Lord in his suffering and Passion. Again, there are no absolutions or blessings before the readings, and they do not end with Tu autem Domine.

Each reading is followed by a responsory. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday, these responsories of the second nocturn are poetic paraphrases of the Gospels' accounts of various parts of the Passion. On Holy Saturday, the day we are without Christ, the responsories are beautiful, poetic reflections on the sorrow of our Savior's death. Every part of the liturgy of Tenebrae, and indeed of the entirety of Holy Week, is incredibly beautiful, far more so than can be reasonably discussed here. The great Spanish Renaissance composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria, composed beautiful polyphonic settings of the responsories for the second and third nocturns for all three days of the Triduum.

Nocturn III
At last, we bring Matins to a close with the third nocturn. On Holy Thursday, we continue our sequence of psalms with Psalm 74, 75, and 76. Psalms 74 and 75 both express praise and thanksgiving to God, while in Psalm 76, we express our hope in God for our salvation. On Good Friday, we curse and renounce the enemies of God in Psalm 58, cry out to God in our suffering in Psalm 87, and adore God's judgment in Psalm 93. Finally, on Holy Saturday, we express our hope in God in Psalm 53 (also sung in the second nocturn on Good Friday), praise God's great works in Psalm 75, and conclude with a plea to God in Psalm 87, which was also sung in the third nocturn on Good Friday (pages 28-32).

The lessons of the third nocturn are taken from Sacred Scripture. On Holy Thursday, they are from the eleventh chapter of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. In this passage, St. Paul gives the Christians of Corinth the instruction for the celebration of the Mass, recalling Jesus Christ's institution of the Mass at the Last Supper, which we celebrate on Holy Thursday. The Epistle at Mass on Holy Thursday is taken from the same chapter of 1 Corinthians.

On Good Friday, the lessons come from the Epistle to the Hebrews, an instruction to the Jews on the Christian faith. It is of unknown authorship, but it is traditionally attributed to St. Paul. In the liturgy, in the title before the reading, it is called the “Epistle of blessed Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” The passage exhorts the Hebrews to seek God's forgiveness and grace, and it praises Jesus Christ as the great High Priest, who through his sacrifice obtained for us God's grace. Whenever we go to confession (as we ought to do frequently, especially during Lent), the priest acts in the person of Jesus Christ, the High Priest, in absolving our sins.

Finally, on Holy Saturday, the readings are also from the Epistle to the Hebrews (pages 33-35). The readings on this day continue to praise Jesus Christ as the great High Priest, who offered the perfect sacrifice for our sins. In doing so, he established a New Covenant with God's people, succeeding that which God made with Moses. Whereas the Old Covenant was made through the blood of calves and lambs that were offered for sacrifice, the New Covenant is made through the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ. Hence, the priest at Mass says, “This is my Blood of the new and eternal Covenant.” Through the Precious Blood of Jesus, we have the hope of salvation.

Like in the second nocturn, the readings of the third nocturn are followed by beautiful responsories that elaborate on the Passion of our Lord, concluding with his burial in the tomb in the ninth responsory on Holy Saturday (page 35-36).

We now come to the end of Matins. Six candles remain lit on the hearse, including the one at the top and center. The ninth responsory of Matins is followed without delay by the first antiphon of Lauds. The psalms of Lauds are those normally appointed for Lauds II on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, respectively.

On all three days, indeed on every day that the second scheme of psalms is used at Lauds (which includes every day of Lent), the first psalm of Lauds is Psalm 50, the Miserere (pages 36-38). This is King David's great hymn of contrition and penitence, and his plea to God for mercy. He wrote it after the Prophet Nathan admonished him to repent of his great sin of adultery and opened his eyes to the wickedness of his ways. It is the fourth penitential psalm.

This psalm's use at Tenebrae is especially appropriate. As we pray and keep watch with Christ during his Passion, like King David, we become more and more aware of the gravity of our sins and our need for God's mercy. We can all join King David in his cry to the Lord, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy!” This repetition (“mercy...according to thy great mercy”) may seem redundant to English speakers, but it is a common feature of Hebrew poetry that appears frequently in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible to add emphasis.

Psalm 50 has a couple verses that are used regularly in the liturgy, including, “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo...” (“Thou shalt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop...”) sung during the Asperges before Sunday Mass, as well as, “Domine, labia mea aperies...” (“O Lord, open thou my lips...”), which opens Matins each day outside the Triduum. For a sin offering to God, David offers his soul in a spirit of devotion and contrition, saying, “For had you wanted sacrifice, I would surely have given it; but you do not delight in holocausts. / A chastened spirit is a sacrifice to God; a humble and contrite heart, O God you will not spurn.” The finite and imperfect sacrifices of animals in the Old Covenant did not win for us God's grace; only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross can do that. Like David, we must contritely offer ourselves to God alongside the bread and wine in the Mass.

Thus, the Miserere, King David's great penitential psalm, is a particularly suitable prayer in the office of Tenebrae, as we keep watch with our suffering Lord, and thus it has been used at Tenebrae for many centuries. Gregorio Allegri, an Italian composer of the late Renaissance, wrote a particularly beautiful nine-part polyphonic setting of the Miserere in the 1630s for use by the Sistine Chapel choir during Tenebrae. It is one of the most beautifully elaborate compositions of the era. When it was composed, it was a special piece just for the Sistine Chapel choir, and no other choir was allowed to perform it. In 1770, a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard this piece at Tenebrae of Holy Thursday in the Sistine Chapel. He asked for the score and was refused, but he proceeded to go home and transcribe the entire piece, all nine parts, from memory. He returned for Tenebrae of Holy Saturday to make the few minor corrections that were necessary.

Following the Miserere are Psalms 89 and 35 on Thursday, Psalms 142 and 84 on Friday, and Psalms 91 and 63 on Saturday.

As always, a canticle from the Old Testament is sung at Lauds. Since this canticle takes the place of a psalm and is treated as a psalm ceremonially, a candle is extinguished after it. On Thursday, we sing the Canticle of Moses from Exodus 15:1-19, which is Moses's great song of praise after God, in his infinite strength and providence, delivered the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt and allowed them to pass through the Red Sea on dry land, before drowning Pharaoh and his army. The deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea is one of the strongest symbols of our redemption in the Old Testament, so this canticle is sung on Holy Thursday as we begin the Sacred Triduum. It also has an important place in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.

On Good Friday, we sing the Canticle of Habakkuk, from Habbakuk 3:2-19. This canticle is a long prophecy of the Last Judgment. We must all fear God and his judgment, not in the same sense that one might be afraid of heights or spiders, but in the sense of being truly aware of the reality of God's power and God's justice, and by that awareness having a deep aversion to sin. This is why the fear of the Lord is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:1-3). The Prophet Habakkuk opens with a note of fear of God, saying, “O Lord, I heard what you said, and I was afraid.” He then describes God on his judgment seat, punishing all of his enemies. We end on a hopeful note, for in the Precious Blood of Jesus, we have the sure hope of salvation.

On Holy Saturday, in place of the Canticle of Moses from Deuteronomy that is normally sung on Saturday at Lauds II, we sing the Canticle of Hezekiah (or “Ezechias” in Latin; pages 42-44), a righteous King of Judah from c. 715 to 686 BC and, according to St. Matthew, the fourteenth great grandfather of Jesus. His canticle is taken from Isaiah 38:10-20 and was written near the end of his life. He describes his sickness and suffering and then trusts in God for his recovery. In the context of the Triduum liturgy, we may apply this canticle to our spiritual sickness caused by sin and our hope in God for redemption.

Tenebrae is, of course, a sorrowful occasion, like a funeral for our Lord, and almost all of it has a very sorrowful, penitential character. However, this is still the hour of Lauds, and the character of Lauds, even Lauds II, is our morning praise and thanksgiving. Even in the Triduum, the Church does not cease to praise God. Thus, like with Lauds of every day, whether Lauds I or Lauds II, the final psalm is a joyful psalm of praise to God (Psalm 146 on Thursday, Psalm 147 on Friday, and Psalm 150 on Saturday; pages 44-45). As strange as it may seem to sing, “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!” on the most sorrowful day of the year, we know that God is always good, the pinnacle of goodness, and he will never abandon his faithful people. He is always worthy of praise.

Following this last psalm of Lauds, the fourteenth of Tenebrae, there remains only one candle lit at the top of the hearse. As with Lauds of any other day, we sing the Benedictus, the Canticle of Zechariah (pages 46-47), sung at the circumcision of his son, St. John the Baptist. Again, there is a joyful element in Tenebrae. The antiphon at the Benedictus describes an event proper to the day. For Thursday, it is the betrayal of our Lord by a kiss; for Friday, the placement of the title over the Cross saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”; for Saturday, the women weeping over the tomb of Christ. During the Benedictus, the altar is not incensed, but rather the six candles on the altar are extinguished, along with any other light in the church. The lone lit candle on the hearse becomes the only source of light.

Conclusion of Tenebrae
Each hour of the Divine Office during the Triduum, from Tenebrae of Holy Thursday through None of Holy Saturday inclusive, has a very special conclusion. This conclusion is apparently intended to be sung from memory, as there is now insufficient light to read it from a book. Two cantors sing the antiphon Christus factus est, taken from St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, which we also heard at the Epistle at the Mass of Palm Sunday. On Holy Thursday, the cantors merely sing, “Christus factus est pro nobis oboediens usque ad mortem.” (“Christ became obedient for us unto death.”) On Good Friday, they add, “Mortem autem crucis.” (“Even to the death of the Cross.”) On Holy Saturday, they sing the full antiphon, adding to what was sung the previous day, “Propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum, et dedit illi nomen, quod est super omne nomen.” (“For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names,” page 48).

During the singing of this antiphon, the lone lit candle is taken from the hearse and hidden behind the altar. (If the altar is against the wall, then it is hidden in some other suitable place.) The church is plunged into darkness. This represents the darkness that fell over the earth at the hour of our Lord's death (Mark 15:33). It also represents the absence of Christ, the light of the world. In darkness, the Our Father is said silently, and then Psalm 50 is recited in a low voice (not sung), pleading yet again for God's mercy. The celebrant concludes with the prayer Respice quaesumus, which is the same all three days (pages 49-50).

After this prayer, a loud noise is made, usually by striking a pew with a book or some similar object. This represents the earthquake at the moment of our Lord's death. The candles representing the light of the world have been slowly extinguished and the church gradually made darker until the church, like the world, was engulfed in darkness. Now, finally, the hour has come, and our Lord has died. There was a violent earthquake, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, and many who were dead were raised from the dead (Matthew 27:51-52).

However, Christ did not leave us forever. Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not comprehend it (John 1:5). Jesus is the Son of God, infinitely powerful, who can never be overcome. That lone candle from the hearse was never extinguished, only hidden behind the altar. Even though nearly all of his followers abandoned him, his Blessed Mother, Mary, and his beloved apostle, John, had faith in God and his perfect love. They never abandoned him. Like the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John, we should have faith in God's love and his promise to never abandon us. In silence, the lit candle is revealed and placed back on the hearse, representing the slightest glimmer of hope in the Resurrection of our Lord. If there is even one candle lit, then the church is no longer in complete darkness. Likewise, even if there is no other perceivable light in the world, the light of Christ always conquers the darkness of sin. All leave in silence by the light of this candle.

Tenebrae is a truly beautiful ceremony. We recall with sorrow, contrition, and hope in God all of the events of our Lord's Passion. We hear the prophetic poetry of Jeremiah in the Lamentations. We experience the gradual darkening of the world until the earthquake in total darkness at the moment of our Lord's death. Finally, we may definitively answer our Lord's command, “Could you not
watch one hour with me? Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation.”

New terms
  • recto tono – Sung all on one pitch.
  • hearse – The triangular fifteen-branched candlestick used at Tenebrae.
  • Miserere – Psalm 50, King David's great cry for mercy. It is sung at Lauds every day during Lent, but it has an especially important place at Tenebrae.

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