Over the years I have come to love attending a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. I'm away on vacation this week, so my friend and I just did a little googling and found one being held here (details will be withheld, for reasons that will become evident momentarily). If you're not familiar with Tenebrae, it's is a distinctive worship service that retells the story of the trial, suffering and crucifixion of Christ. It employs some level of drama by gradually extinguishing candles while a series of readings and hymns are recited and sung. (The word tenebrae is Latin for "shadows" or "darkness"). By the end of the service, the sanctuary is dark and all depart silently in order to ponder the meaning and power of what was just told.
I have participated in putting on many Tenebrae services, and I will be honest, it can be a little stressful. Coordinating the candle snuffers, bell ringers and various readers, providing some pertinent sound effects, and turning off lights on cue (all the while juggling an indiscreet flashlight so you can see what you're doing) is a situation fraught with the potential for disaster. For example, one year I was poised to swing a hammer three distinct times (done with maximum volume, if I do say so myself) when all of a sudden a man I did not know came up behind me and said in a stage whisper, "I MUST ask you to stop this IMMEDIATELY." He went on to tell me that he was a retired fire marshal and that he believed we were in major violation by turning off lights, which could prevent people from exiting safely in case of fire. (May I add at this point that the bright green EXIT lights were still on, ruining whatever ambience we were trying to create?)
Imagine my situation: I'm having to follow a complex script which was going to require me to pound the hammer at just the right moment so that 600 people could jump out of their seats because they weren't expecting it, which was the complete point of the moment... and this agitated gentleman is insisting that I have to stop! I did a quick mental calculation: should I listen to the retired fire marshal, or face the consequences I was sure to endure if I missed my all-important cue? In a nanosecond I concluded, "Hmm, well... I DO have a hammer in my hand, so he can't really make me stop..." I mumbled something about getting permission ahead of time, and proceeded accordingly. And there was no fire, so we were all good. Not my best moment, to be sure.
But I digress. Back to this year's out-of-town service. The service was scheduled to start at 7pm. Since we were visitors, we opted to arrive about 5 minutes before it started in order to not stand out, right? As we pulled in, I counted 4 cars in the parking lot. I tried not to get nervous. Soon after a couple other cars pulled up, so we mustered up the courage to go in. (Sad to say that, but I'm just being honest.) People were very friendly, and the pastor walked around greeting everyone individually. This was a nice touch.
Let's not forget that the goal of Tenebrae is darkness (despite the fire marshal's protestations.) Thus another distinct challenge of putting on a Tenebrae service is shutting out ambient light. Given that church buildings are usually created, intentionally, with lots of windows to allow for natural light, this can be a problem. So I chuckled knowingly to myself as I walked in to the sanctuary and saw that Hefty trashbags had been split open and pieced together with clear packing tape in order to cover up the very tall and large windows in the sanctuary that look out onto the surrounding mountains. "Classy" was definitely not the first word that came to mind.
We found a seat and the service soon began. One of the most enjoyable things about Tenebrae is that it follows a liturgy, where various prayers are recited, and the congregation responds, following a program that was handed to us. Fortunately, this part was intact. As I mentioned, a sort of drama is enacted as the story is told. Piece by piece, the altar is slowly stripped of all elements, so that just the cross is left in front. As the program stated, "This liturgy is designed so that worshipers spend most of this time with eyes looking at the cross, symbol of Christ's most compelling sacrifice."
What followed from there was very, very... earnest. The pastor had recruited four people to assist him: a boy whom I estimated to be about 11 years old, a teenage girl that looked to be about 17, and an older couple who alternated in doing various things up front. Items were clunked and nearly dropped at various times, and at one point the older man went to move the rustic wooden cross that they were using for the service in order to place it front and center, and as he turned it it around it looked like he was going to take the head off of the teenage girl. Thankfully, disaster was averted. We were then directed to sing a few hymns and friends, I have to be honest: it was truly the worst music I have ever heard, bar none. The piano was way out of tune, there was no one to really lead the singing, and the songs were purposely slow and almost dirge-like in order to communicate the heaviness of the events being told. It was seriously bad. All of our voices were hesitant, off-key and sort of strained and reedy; given that the congregation was very small, it was all the more noticeable. I flinch again just thinking about it.
Regardless of all these foibles, I tried my darnedest to focus on why I was there. And you know what? All the little goofy stuff didn't matter once we started reading through and hearing the scriptures. From the Psalms and Isaiah passages that foretold Messiah's suffering to the incredibly poignant words from the Gospels, the raw power and tragedy of the last earthly days of Jesus' life were captured. In fact, by having such a clumsy service, the truth and beauty came through all the more forcefully, because there was nothing to distract from the words.
When the final part of the crucifixion story is told, I was still deeply moved by Christ's suffering and utter degradation:
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:27-31)
At one point in the service we each signed our names to our own sheet of paper that confessed the bald ugliness of our selfish behavior. We were invited to come forward and lay that sheet down, enacting our own desire to be freed of our past sin and hurtful actions. After this stunning passage from Matthew 27 was read, the older gentleman gathered up the sheets of paper (this was noisy and awkward, but in a good way) and laid them at the foot of the cross. THAT was powerful. Then we recited this prayer together:
Lord Jesus, my sin in great! I sin daily in thought, word, and deed. I sin in things I have done and in things I have left undone. Thank you for taking my sin and nailing it to the cross.
It wasn't miserable, manipulative and guilt-inducing to say those things. It was just... honest. I mean, it's true. I do stuff every day that I regret. Or pass up chances to do kind things because I'm self-absorbed or distracted. It was freeing and right to confess my deep need for the work of the cross. It also turned the soil of my heart over and prepared it for the celebration on Sunday. Such good news awaits!
Let us look forward to the great good message of resurrection and second chances. I am so grateful that I get a do-over, again and again. Praise Him.