Tenebrae: experiencing the "darkness" of the cross.
Tonight, our family will be attending Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The paradox at the heart of our faith is the subject of the service—and so it is fittingly both difficult and beautiful…
As liturgical time collapses, we are brought to the foot of the cross, and we listen to the texts that recount Jesus' final hours—hours in which we learn of Jesus’ very real human fear over what is about to occur, as well as his resignation to the reality that his options are severely limited. He could run, but those who are opposed to his life-affirming ways are everywhere, such that even one of his own has betrayed his location to the Roman soldiers; he could fight, but then he has become like that to which he has been adamantly opposed throughout the entire period of his ministry; or he could affirm his mission to face everything before him in a holy way and he could lay down his life in order not to participate in the evil ways of the world. He chooses the latter, and in that choice, we understand something of our own redemption. By the end of the night, Jesus will forgive those who have persecuted him; he will take no resentment against them into the underworld.
During tonight’s service, candles will be extinguished incrementally as we approach the hour of his death. We will hear Jesus' final words from the cross, "my God, my God...Why have you forsaken me?" Jesus' abandonment is expressed by quoting Psalm 22, which is finally a prayer offering praise to God and expressing faith in hope of deliverance even in the midst of persecution.
It is the custom at the Basilica of St. Mary for a rabbi from Temple Israel to deliver some remarks. This act, alone, is a symbol of reconciliation, because for too long, Christians have taken vengeance on this night for the death of Jesus, and have conducted violent pogroms against Jews. Sometimes, the rabbis will recount fears that have been evident in Jewish households on this night that is unlike other nights—precisely because it is Good Friday. One rabbi has recounted the story of her grandparents, who told of their grandparents, who used to hide in the ovens of their bakery to avoid the murderous rants of nineteenth-century Christians. We Catholics have much to repent on this most holy of nights.
When the fateful hour comes, Jesus will utter his last, and he will release his spirit into the hands of his God. During the liturgy, we will pass the cross—feeling the weight of it, knowing we are complicit in acts of the same, even tonight. At the same time, we are still at the base of that particular cross, which goes into the crowd like news announcing his death. The rumor will move beyond Golgotha into Jerusalem and throughout the region. Jesus, the one who a week ago had entered Jerusalem and who was met as if he were a King, and thus a threat to the Roman Empire, is now dead. The political authorities savor their victory just as those closest to him experience defeat and disbelief. This cannot be.
At the Basilica of St. Mary, after the passing of the cross, it is gingerly laid upon pillows in front of the tabernacle, which is fittingly empty. And tonight, the body will be anointed with oil—so women will take their places at stations around the church, and the congregation—the Body of Christ—will step forward to be anointed with scented oils, oils that permeate our skin and leave fragrance for days to come, reminding us that we are Christ's hands and feet. In chronological time, we are already the resurrected body. But tonight, we memorialize his death. Tonight, we are the crucified body. Tonight, we experience the desperation of the disillusioned community, lamenting over the death of the one who we believed was our Messiah. Our desire for mercy will be captured in song: Allegri: Miserere will be sung throughout the ritual of the anointing, with its double descant that, too, will haunt the memory of those who hear it tonight.
The earth will quake, replicated in the church by the pounding of pews and the hammering of a timpani. And all light in the church will be extinguished, for the light has truly gone out of the world. When the sole lit candle enters back into the sanctuary, absolute silence will overtake the congregation. The vigil will begin, as we await the next act. But first, rose petals will fall from the apse as if even God, too, cries over what we have done.
Dr. Kimberly Vrudny
Associate Professor of Theology