Tenebrae (which means “shadows” or “darkness”) is a powerfully evocative retelling of the death of Jesus. The basic format dates back to the 7th or 8th century A.D. and is characterized by the successive extinguishing of candles and lights as the service progresses. Every spoken word of the Tenebrae service comes directly from the Word of God. There is no sermon. It is simply the reading of the story of Jesus’ death for us. The Tenebrae service begins with all lights on and the seven Tenebrae candles lit. Throughout the service, there will be a progressive darkening of the lights in the sanctuary as the candles representing the last events in Christ’s life are extinguished.
The seven Tenebrae candles are extinguished first, one by one, bringing us into the shadows and darkness. In the darkness, the striking of a whip can be heard, representing the stripes that were laid upon Jesus for our healing. A hammer will strike nails in the darkness, representing the crucifixion of Christ. Finally, the Christ Candle is extinguished, representing the death of Jesus Christ in our behalf.
The Christ Candle is then removed, representing Jesus’ burial. A loud noise, called the “strepitus” is heard, symbolizing the closing of the tomb.
After a period of darkness, the Christ candle is then returned to the altar in the anticipation of its re-lighting on Easter morning. As such, it serves to remind us that even in apparent defeat, Christ was victorious over sin and death. The Christ Candle being returned to the altar indicates that death is not the final word for those who trust in Christ. As He is risen, so we shall experience bodily resurrection through His victory!