Tenebrae – Thunderous Darkness

I haven’t celebrated Easter at home in a long time. Living in New York City, most years, I would celebrate Easter by myself, at a church where I felt anonymous, surrounded by a light crowd of people I didn’t know, and would never see again.

It was just…a little cold.

Well, this year, I was home in Ohio, living here, with my fiance and my family, in our home parish where we’re going to be getting married in less than two months, with our wonderful priest who I’ve known since I was a child. It was just…beautiful.

I couldn’t be more grateful to be where I am in this exact moment.

I’ve got to say, there is something really beautiful about the Easter Tridiuum observed and celebrated in the Catholic church. It is the summit of the liturgical year, and it marks the three days leading up to Easter Sunday: the evening of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and ultimately Easter Sunday.

It is a powerful somber, reverend, and spiritually transformational time where the world stops, and we focus on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And I’m going to be honest: I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything so deeply beautiful and holy, than those Masses and services. (Steven and I went to every single one).

But particularly Tenebrea on Spy Wednesday.

First of all, the coolest thing about being Catholic … or at least one of the coolest things … is that no matter where you are in the world, what language you speak, what time zone you find yourself in, every single Catholic is worshipping the exact same way. Though different languages, we’re all reading the same Old Testament readings, the same Psalm, the same Gospel; we’re celebrating the same Eucharist, the same prayers. It is a universal church, and everyone, everywhere is worshipping in the same way. All one billion of us.

And not only that, but worshipping the same way for nearly two thousand years! It hasn’t changed!

But anyway…

Wednesday of Holy Week, Steven, my parents and I all went to the Tenebrea service. It is this incredibly moving service that is only held by a handful of Catholic churches around the world, and our church happened to be one of them.

To set the scene, it helps to know that the word Tenebrea is the latin word for “darkness” — and that is exactly how the church is.

And the purpose of this evening of prayer is to reflect and walk through the suffering and death of Jesus, and reflect, not only on the darkness in your own life, but reflect on the darkness of the world without Jesus, following His death on the cross during those three days.

Tenebrea is held at night during Lent, usually Spy Wednesday. And you walk into the church and it is completely dark except for 15 candles, all on this beautiful candelabra on the altar. One that is only used for Tenebrea.

And throughout the 2+ hour service, one-by-one, the candles are extinguished. It’s a rotations of sung Psalms, prayers and songs, and after each one, a candle is put out.

When the last candle is left, representing Jesus, the church is nearly completely pitch black except for that one light. And when it is extinguished, the whole church goes black, and all of a sudden, this startlingly loud thunder happens — strepitus — for about 30 seconds, where the choir bangs their books on the pews, and bangs drums, etc…it’s so loud, and being a “first timer” I had no idea it was coming. But that deafening noise is symbolic of the earthquake and chaos that shook the earth when Jesus died.

After the thunder, the little light returns, and is placed on the Alter, and then everyone exits in silence, in darkness.

The music, first of all, is hauntingly beautiful, and yet so incredibly sorrowful at the same time. With lyrics taken from Lamentations, it’s all reflecting on Jesus’ suffering and death. And it is some of the most somber-yet-brilliant music you’ve ever heard…especially by our church’s magnificent choir.

It moved you. It was a total sensory experience. And you don’t realize how enveloping and scary pitch black darkness is, until you’re startled by thunderous noise and you can’t see a single thing.

I was particularly moved, because darkness was all I knew for a very sad season of my life: during my anorexia

Watching that one final light get snuffed out, I was reminded how far Jesus has delivered me.

There was a desolate season of time where Christ’s light was distinguished from my heart. I was completely surrendered to the Eating Disorder — and, in my opinion, the spiritual warfare that is an eating disorder — and I was suffocating in that darkness.

Years of my life that I lived for that darkness. I yearned to be unseen, unknown, alone with my eating disorder, which was sustaining me and giving me life.

Watching that one light pierce the dark, I remember how it only took that one breakthrough “come-to-Jesus” moment when He broke through and pierced that darkness, and His love and forgiveness illuminated it all.

It only took that one little pin light to drive away the darkness.

And the rest is history: here I am today, alive because of His transformative love, 12 years strong in recovery.

What a powerful experience, during Tenebrea to reflect on the darkness of the world without Christ. To experience His suffering, to meditate upon how Jesus gave up absolutely everything to save the world.

I would highly invite you to find a Tenebrea service next Lent. (Don’t worry, I’ll remind you in a year…hopefully I’ll have a baby in my belly by then!)

But truly, I couldn’t have been more grateful to be Catholic this Easter. And experience the rich traditions, the beautiful worship, the spiritually moving services where we mourned, suffered, prayed and ultimately rejoiced along with Jesus, our Savior.

He is risen. What an incredible gift that is!

Happy Easter, my friends. May His joy surround you as we celebrate the Savior of the World!

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23 responses to “Tenebrae – Thunderous Darkness”

  1. https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=https%3A%2F%2Fnypost.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2Fsites%2F2%2F2023%2F04%2FNYPICHPDPICT000009331266.jpg&tbnid=NP3FDVNTWh75vM&vet=12ahUKEwiwgpvSwaD-AhUvP94AHQoaCjIQMygCegUIARCoAQ..i&imgrefurl=https%3A%2F%2Fnypost.com%2F2023%2F04%2F07%2Fzealot-nails-himself-to-a-cross-for-his-34th-easter-crucifixion%2F&docid=vo3owfGtA1qluM&w=6000&h=4000&itg=1&q=easter%20in%20the%20philippines&client=safari&ved=2ahUKEwiwgpvSwaD-AhUvP94AHQoaCjIQMygCegUIARCoAQ

    True devotion in the Philippines

  2. We have a Service of Darkness in the evening on Good Friday at our Christian church. When the candles are extinguished and the darkness is completely enveloping, representing our Savior’s death, the sadness and aloneness is palpable. It makes the light and beauty of the Easter Sunday celebration so joyous. He is risen, He is risen indeed! Happy Easter to you and your loved ones.

    • You’re right about that, Jack! a great way indeed. thank you, hope yours was wonderful as welL! Hugs and love xox

  3. Thank you for sharing your faith – and explaining the beauty of Holy Week. You may have readers who had no idea about some of those things. Hopefully they will take you up on your invitation and look forward to not only “Don’t worry, I’ll remind you in a year…” but also to seeing if our Good Lord gives you the gift of your dreams: ” … hopefully I’ll have a baby in my belly by then!” I will pray for that for you, too, Caralyn. You and Steven have the promise of making such a beautiful offspring!! <3

  4. Lovely post, thank you. I had not heard of the tenebrae service-I am not a Catholic- but it has been beautifully described here.

    • i have not heard but I look forward to listening to it! thank you, Grace, for passing it along! Hugs and love xox

  5. What a beautiful rendering of your Tenebrea service, Caralyn! I am not Catholic, however, I will now make it a point to attend a Tenebrea service next Lent. How beautifully meaningful to experience those powerful emotions relating to our Lord’s last days. Thank you for posting!
    (And I hope you have a baby in your belly by then too ❤️)
    Love & blessings, Mindy

  6. My Lutheran church (Missouri Synod) also celebrates a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. Not nearly as long, it is, of course, in darkness with candles being extinguished. Finally, the end of the service is the sound of the Bible being slammed shut. It’s pretty jarring. We then file out quietly- – no visiting, etc.

    Caralyn, I’m just so glad that you were rescued from your ED and that we have met and are friends. Blessings to you and Steven!

  7. Many of us evangelical protestants are rediscovering the richness of worship in liturgy that was eschewed when I was a child. Tenebrae is a new idea to me, and I look forward to enjoying it next year.
    ❤️&🙏, c.a.

    • thank you! oh my gosh that’s my favorite food in the entire world! Hugs and love xox

  8. I am sorry to say I am an inactive Catholic. I attended Parochial School and loved the Latin Masses. I remember crying during the Good Friday Services which included Stations of the Cross, so moved by Christ’s suffering. I have never heard of Tenebrae but would love to be a part of that.

    Thank you for sharing.

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