Tenebrae: the Liturgy of “Shadows” on Good Friday

Tenebrae at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church

On Good Friday, March 29, 2024, OLP will offer the Tenebrae Liturgy at 7 pm. The liturgy is named for the scripture passage from Matthew 27:45: “Tenebrae Facte Sunt,” or “shadows fell.”  In the scriptures, this is a period of Jesus’ most intense suffering from noon to 3 pm when darkness covers the land and Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” 


One of the defining characteristics of a Tenebrae Service is the 15 candles lit at the beginning of the liturgy and extinguished one by one as the series of readings, prayers, hymns, and anthems proceed. The last candle, symbolizing Christ, rather than being extinguished, is taken away. The assembly participates in the “strepitus,” rapping or tapping on the pews; this represents the period of turmoil after Jesus dies:  “And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.*The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matthew 27: 51-52). And just as Jesus rose from the dead after his descent to hell, the candle returns to its place, and the liturgy is concluded. 


Throughout the liturgy, there is a focus on praying the psalms, particularly psalms of lament and penitence. The words Jesus says on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) are directly from one of the Psalms of lament: Psalm 22. These psalms help us reflect on our Lord's suffering for the sake of our souls and our own sinfulness. Praying the Psalms in this way is a long tradition in the church; in fact, the apostles themselves interpreted the Psalms as being prophetic of Christ, and church Fathers as early as the fourth century (St. Basil, Athanasius, Gregory, and others) were encouraging people to pray psalms as they were a sort of bible in miniature, and through praying the words as both Christ’s and our own, had the power to transform our hearts. Later, the formalized praying of the Psalms took form in the medieval era in the “Divine Office” or “Liturgy of the Hours.” The Divine Office Consists of small liturgies that are prayed throughout the day: The Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Mid-Morning, Afternoon, Midafternoon, Evening, and Night Prayer. During the Middle Ages, on Good Friday, the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer were combined and prayed in the evening as an extended Vigil called Tenebrae. This practice continued for centuries in the church.


This year at Tenebrae, we will be adding an opportunity for adoration of the Holy Cross.


Elizabeth Pike

Director of Music & Liturgy