After each reading the prop is returned to its place on the table and covered with a black napkin…A pattern of black grows across the table as the readings continue.
What is Tenebrae?
The service of Tenebrae is celebrated during Holy Week, on Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday. While patterns may differ, the basic components are a series of readings on Christ’s passion, along with lit candles that are extinguished, one at a time, following each reading. By the end of the service, the Passion narrative has been fully presented and the congregation is in darkness, as all the candles have been extinguished.
Experiential Holy Week Tenebrae Service
Carolyn C. Brown offers a version of this service that works especially well for children and intergenerational groups. It could also be effective for a school chapel service or adapted into a Sunday school lesson. The following is reprinted with permission from Sharing the Easter Faith with Children (Abington: 2006).
“Rather than snuff a candle after each reading, present a prop related to each reading as it is read. Readers are seated at a table … in front of each reader there is a prop related to [their scripture] story and a folded black napkin. Readers are seated in story sequence from left to right.
“As each reader begins, an acolyte picks up the prop for that story, holds it high and solemnly walks a prescribed path among the worshippers so that all can see the prop.
“The acolyte then returns the prop to its place on the table and covers it with the black napkin. If the napkin is arranged so a corner hangs over the front of the table, a pattern of black grows across the table as the readings continue. A deep toned bell (perhaps a handbell) is tolled once as the acolyte steps back into place following each reading. A rehearsal is essential.”
Adapted Tactile Tenebrae Service
Jay LaNunziata shares the service they adapted for Palm Sunday. Rather than have an acolyte process symbolic props during the readings, props were passed from worshipper to worshipper, seated in a circle around the central table. At the end of each reading the last person returned the prop to the table and covered it with sheer black fabric. This table was then used to celebrate Holy Eucharist at the end of the service of Tenebrae.
There were 70 at this service, young and old, and all responded enthusiastically to a new way of engaging the Passion readings.
The Visual Props
Note that your props and readings may differ, depending on the traditions of your congregation, what you have available, and how you structure the service. Here are some suggestions:
Communion Chalice (Reading: The Last Supper)
Picture of Jesus Praying (Reading: Jesus prays in the garden)
Display the picture on a table easel. For a non-representational option: praying hands
Length of Rope / Cast Iron Manacles (Reading: Jesus is arrested)
The rope ends are tied in loops; the acolyte slips the loops over her wrists leaving them hooked over her thumbs so they will not slip all the way down her arms. For the manacles, the weight is important – play handcuffs won’t work.
Crown of Thorns (Reading: Jesus is sentenced to death)
Use whatever thorny vines grow in your area.
Red Cardboard Broken Heart (Reading: Peter’s denials)
The acolyte carries one half of the broken heart in each hand holding the halves close to each other to show the heart shape.
Cross (Reading: Jesus is killed)
Use a freestanding cross, or make a cross out of branches found in your area.
Length of White Fabric (Reading: Jesus is buried)
The fabric is carried, draped across the acolyte’s arms.
Resources For Doing This Service at Your Church
Here are some resources to learn more about Tenebrae and do a version of the service at your church.
Special thanks to Carolyn C. Brown, Certified Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).
Special thanks to Jay LaNunziata, Director of Christian Formation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville, NC.