“The office of Tenebrae is much less of a special function than many laymen imagine. It is only Matins and Lauds [the first two morning prayer times] for the next day, with certain peculiarities suitable for those days. But there are now almost the only occasion when lay people (unless they live near a monastery) have an opportunity of attending one of the oldest of all church offices. All the more reason for doing so when they can.
The name ‘Tenebrae,’ used specifically for Matins and Lauds of the last three days of Holy Week, is obviously derived from the gradual extinction of the lights, leaving the church at last in total darkness.
THE DEVELOPMENT THROUGH TIME
It may seem odd that we should say Matins and Lauds rather late in the afternoon of the day before. But this is the invariable tendency of church functions, to be pushed back and kept earlier. The morning office of Holy Saturday is a conspicuous example of the same thing. Originally Matins was said during the night, its three Nocturns at intervals, and Lauds at cock-crow. Then people found it hard to get up in the middle of the night; so instead of saying Matins later, they said it before going to bed. So now a priest is allowed to say his Matins and Lauds at any time from the latter part of the afternoon before.
Comparing Tenebrae with the normal Matins and Lauds, we notice the following differences. First, naturally, the psalms and lessons are all appropriate to these days; but this is not an exception; appropriate psalms and lessons are chosen for every feast. Then Tenebrae lacks all the later additions to the Divine Office. It has no hymns, no Invitatorium psalm, no blessings. (Nor, of course, the Te Deum which ends Matins only on feasts and joyful Sundays.) It is reduced to the bare essentials; that is, at Matins three Nocturns, each consisting of three psalms and as many lessons; at Lauds five psalms and the ‘Benedictus’. To this only the versicles in each Nocturn and at Lauds, the silent Pater noster, and the characteristic ending of every part of the Divine office on these days (the verse ‘Christus factus est,’ etc., the ‘Miserere,’ and last prayer) are added.
What is the reason of this simplicity? It cannot be the idea ofmourning, which might exclude additional ornament, because much the same is the case on Easter Day; at Easter, too, the office has no hymns nor many of the later additions. The reason is the greater solemnity of the days, and the fact that people were long accustomed to this older form of the office. When later additions were made they were not applied to these greatest days, partly no doubt from the idea of reverence in not touching their services; partly, too, because the people would neither understand nor like changes in the services they knew so well. This is a common tendency, that very great days, with whose offices the people have specially sacred associations, keep a more archaic form. To a great extent this more archaic form is the only important feature of Tenebrae.
THE OUTER CEREMONIES ARE LESS IMPORTANT
The outer ceremonies, which strangers notice first, are less important. The lessons of the first Nocturn are always taken from Scripture. In Holy Week they are, most suitably, from the Lamentations of Jeremias [Jeremiah]. There is no great mystery about the Hebrew words sung at the beginning of each clause of these Lamentations. The original text, like that of many psalms, is an acrostic, each sentence beginning with one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, in order. The acrostic is not preserved in the Latin version, but we name the Hebrew letters with which the original begins. The extraordinarily beautiful chant of the Lamentations is a special one, not merely the usual tone adorned.
DARKNESS AND MOURNING: THE FIFTEEN CANDLES
At Tenebrae fifteen candles are lighted on a triangle called the hearse. They are of unbleached wax. This is a common sign of mourning, dating from the time when bleached wax was considered a rather sumptuous ornament. These candles are put out gradually, one after each psalm of the office. Now it represents to us the idea of darkness and mourning.
It is a question how it first began. According to the usual reason for all Roman ceremonies one is tempted to see in this, originally, merely a practical expedient. If Matins were sung in the night and Lauds at cock-crow, the church would be getting gradually lighter, so the candles would be no longer wanted. Father Thurston, however, while not entirely rejecting this, suggests another ingenious explanation. He explains that it was the tradition at Rome to celebrate Tenebrae in the dark, as a sign of mourning; that in the North they wanted to imitate this custom, but could not read their books in the dark, so they had to light some candles. Then, towards the end, since the psalms of Lauds are so much better known, they found it possible to do exactly as Rome did, to finish quite in the dark, singing by heart.(Thurston, pp. 262-263) The hiding of the last candle and its restoration to the hearse at the end may have begun so that while the end of Tenebrae is quite dark, nevertheless there should be a light by which to see one’s way out. Or perhaps, as all this ceremony is not originally Roman, there may be here deliberate symbolism of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The knocking at the end was undoubtedly merely a sign that all should rise and depart. Since the bells are silent these days, it was given with a clapper or by knocking a book. This is a most typical example of the way a ceremony is evolved, and acquires later symbolic meaning.”
– Adrian Fortescue, from “The Holy Week Book”, Burns Oates & Washbourne, London, 1913