Preparing for the Light: Tenebrae

Throughout the 40 days of Lent, the Church has repeatedly echoed the invitation of Jesus: “Repent!  The kingdom of God is at hand…”  We have fasted and prayed, done acts of penance and works of mercy, and perhaps have stumbled and failed in some way.  But even these failures are gifts of God grace, when we offer them to Him, He uses them to draw us more deeply into Himself and our knowledge of Him and His mercy. 

Now, we enter Holy Week and the Triduum.  The Triduum is a liturgical season in and of itself, the three days of the year marked profoundly by the passion and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus.  The days are marked with special liturgies, full of silence, lamentation and sorrow.  Through these liturgies the Church looks on the face of Jesus and sees the reality of sin, and also sees her hope and deliverance through His offering of love.

In the monastery, the last days before Easter, the Holy Triduum, are spent as days of retreat as much as possible – all but the most essential work stops as the sisters are given more time to complete their tasks for the Triduum and Easter preparation, such as reviewing and practicing the liturgies, cleaning, decorating and cooking for Easter, but most importantly, spending extra time in prayer and meditation.  You are invited to join us in prayer and reflection, in the celebration of the liturgies and in time of silent prayer in our chapel.

Most people are familiar with the afternoon and evening liturgies of the Triduum: Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, and, of course, the Easter Vigil Mass the night before Easter Sunday.  But there is also another powerful time of liturgical prayer during the early morning of these three days: Tenebrae.

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Tenebrae is traditionally prayed in complete darkness, with the only light coming from a hearse holding burning candles.  As the hour of prayer proceeds, at various times, the candles are extinguished, representing the disciples abandoning our Lord.  Chantresses intone passages from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which describe the sins of Jerusalem (representative of the Jewish people, and also of the Church) and entreat her to return to the Lord, her God.

Eventually only the center, or Christ candle, remains burning, until near the end of Tenebrae when its flame is also removed after the chanting of the Benedictus.  Then, in Dominican tradition, two chantresses stand at the front of the choir, two more chantresses stand in the middle of the choir and all face the altar as the chantresses and choir pray for Christ’s mercy.

May God’s grace pour out on us all during these holy days of Triduum as we prepare for His Resurrection and the triumph we share with Him over the captivity and death of sin.