"And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."
This post is a little late, due to demands of work, but I've felt compelled to complete it. On Good Friday, I attended a beautiful "Tenebrae" service, a Service of Shadows, and it's left a lasting impression on me.
"Tenebrae" is Latin for shadows or darkness. The Tenebrae has evolved from an ancient Christian ritual, most usually held on Good Friday, using diminishing light through extinguishing candles to symbolise the arrest, torture, trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The enveloping darkness holds the sadness, helplessness and hopelessness after his death; a world without God. When I was at school, the Tenebrae would include a dramatic slamming of a church door or other dramatic noise to signify the closing of Jesus' tomb.
I remember Tenebrae services from my younger days as sombre and deeply sad; even depressive, if I'm being totally honest. This Good Friday, I travelled to the parish of "Our Lady of Mercy and St Joseph", in Lymington in Hampshire, to take part in a beautiful service put together by the wonderful Cathy; assisted by the lovely parish priest, Father Danny. Although Tenebrae has evolved with many traditional and orthodox elements intact, the service at Lymington was incredibly effective.
Belying the hard work that had gone into the preparation, it was a simple and seamless Tenebrae. About forty people attended on what was essentially a cold Friday night; the pretty parish church is quite small and seemed almost womb-like by flickering candlelight.
The service was obviously reflective and moving, but the beauty of it has stayed with me throughout Easter and is carrying me through the start of the great British summertime. I felt a real sense of quiet hopefulness during and after the service. At the edge of the New Forest and set across the Solent from the Isle of Wight, Lymington is often depicted as an affluent, self-contained area. But the quayside shops and pristine cottages front a town still darkened by poverty and social distress; the community of Our Lady of Mercy responds from a little pocket of kindness which is incredibly deep.
The intent of the service and the openness with which it was received were palpable. It's traditional to leave the Tenebrae in silence; the gathering on Friday in Lymington stayed in hushed contemplation long after the last candle of the service was blown out. There was a very real sense of acceptance and renewal and the affirmation of the faith at the heart of Easter. It was one of the most poignant church services I've been to: impossible not to feel touched by the spark made only brighter by the winter darkness.
"It is a time for shadows.
Before the glorious light of resurrection morning,
there are dark nights, and even darker days.
On our way toward rejoicing in the resurrection,
we are entering that shadow land, those days of darkness,
the darkness that stretched from the upper room to the tomb.
Dark days lie ahead,
somber days, shadowed days.
We have asked terrifying questions:
Will we notice the light, in the midst of so many shadows?
Would we notice the light, were it not for the shadows?
But we have ended with the triumphant question:
Would there be shadows, were it not for the light?
It is a time for shadows,
But it is also a time for hope."
(Adapted from Lee Magness' "Service of Shadows" 2009)
"There is a fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody's voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?"
"John Nineteen Forty-One", from "Jesus Christ Superstar"