Yesterday at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, here at Notre Dame, I attended a service of prayer and lamentation called “Tenebrae”, remembering the darkness of the night when Christ suffered in Gethsemane and was arrested, and anticipating his death. It closed with a final candle carried out, leaving us in complete darkness, and the congregation producing a loud noise, like the rolling of the stone to close the grave. Today I had a conversation with some friends, in which we reflected on the meaning of these events, and the difference in the darkness from a Mormon point of view.

Tenebrae means, “Shadows.” Surely that was a dark night for Jesus’ followers. He said one puzzling thing after another, told them they must now carry swords, and rebuked them for not staying awake with him in the garden. He pulled the rug from under Peter who had just screwed up his courage to attack the armed posse come to arrest Christ, telling Peter to put away his sword, healing the smitten ear, and giving himself up for arrest without resistance, though all knew this party intended his death. What would his followers do if their Master was put to death? Would they be killed as well? The cock crew, and Peter wept bitterly.

Christ was falsely accused, mocked, beaten, dragged all night from one charade of a court to another. Finally the next day he was nailed to a cross. At noon there suddenly was darkness, and later on, in the darkness, Christ said, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Not long after, he cried out again, and died, and the veil of the temple was torn, and the earth shook. In the New World, there was thick darkness for three days.

Of this time Jesus said, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified . . . and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Glory suggests light. Still, he continued, “Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.” By the time Christ was on the cross, his disciples must have felt worse than disoriented, worse than lost.

And yet in the darkness were heard some of Christ’s most illuminating words, words that made the meaning of his accomplishment clear. The people in the New World heard, “Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God . . . by me redemption cometh, and in me is the law of Moses fulfilled . . . I am the light and the life of the world . . . And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerengs shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.

“And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not . . . Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved.”

Christ’s death was a terrible thing, and yet through his arrest, trial and death, and in the darkness that followed, he showed us more fully who he is and how to follow him, the light of the world.

10 comments for “Tenebrae

  1. What an astonishing aesthetic–and spiritual–experience, Ben. But as much as I love the poetry (and Latin!) of “high” Christian worship, I wouldn’t trade it for the richness of doctrine we enjoy. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  2. Thanks for the beautiful post, Ben. I was invited to a Tenebrae service, and I wanted to go, but it involved logistics in the city (Chicago) late at night on a weeknight that I hadn’t had time to steel myself for. Maybe next year with more notice I’ll take the plunge.

    In my youth fireside last Sunday night, one of the things I meant to do but didn’t have time for was to help the kids parse Jesus’ expression on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.” So I’ll do it here.

    El means “God.”

    The -i at the end is called a pronominal suffix, and means “my.” Accordingly, “Eli” means “my God,” repeated twice for emphasis.

    Lama means “why.”

    The -thani at the end of sabachthani is a first person singular verbal pronominal suffix, and is the object of the verb, meaning “me.”

    The sabach is an Aramaic verb, meaning “to abandon, forsake.”

    So sabachthani means “abandoned me.”

    The Hebrew equivalent would be azavthani, and indeed some Greek manuscripts reflect this Hebrew word in lieu of the Aramaic.

    I realize this is just a little thing, but being able to understand Jesus’ actual words on the cross I think helps you to appreciate them more deeply.

  3. Oops, I forgot to mention that the “you” as the English subject of the verb is also simply built into the form of the verb itself (an independent pronoun is not required).

  4. Of course I agree, Rosalynde; aesthetics has to take a back seat to true doctrine. I wonder, though, whether we Mormons couldn’t do both. Actually, it’s not really the aesthetics I’m thinking of so much as the richness of the celebrations. The Tenebrae service was very–er–dark, dark in a way that seemed a bit much to me, given that we know what happened next. So if I were designing a celebration for the start of Good Friday, I would probably do it differently. Such as, I would probably include more readings from the New Testament account of these events — something that was conspicuously absent from this Tenebrae service. But I feel like we Mormons let Easter go by too quietly. We make a much bigger production of Christmas, but I would think it should work the other way.

    Am I missing something? Of course, General Conference in the spring often picks up something of the Easter theme. I’ll be listening for it especially this time around. And we also have competing loyalties, perhaps, to April 6th. Is there a hidden rationale here?

  5. Of course, the best thing about this Tenebrae service–perhaps even the lack of NT readings ended up being a plus in a way–was that it prompted a friend to say, “What was that all about? What’s up with Christ having to suffer and die?” So we had this great conversation about it, and read from Exodus and Matthew and John and Hebrews and Mosiah and Ether and 3 Nephi. That sort of thing is what this celebration business is all for. Exodus 12:27 says, “when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.”

  6. The confusion and disorientation of the disciples—both in the midst of the Passion, and the aftermath—is something I haven’t thought about much. Newsweek’s cover story this week has some thoughts on this that were interesting to me, ignoramus that I am when it comes to New Testament and early Christian scholarship. If anyone’s read it, I’d be curious to know what those more knowledgable think of it.

    Also, the layout and classic artwork in the print version of the article are gorgeous. A painting of Christians in the coliseum with lions, with burnt crucified corpses, is particularly arresting.

  7. I’ve never forgotten a trip to temple square at the beginning of my mission, back in 1975, when a Book of Mormon exhibit placed participants in total darkness at the crucifixion of the Savior, and then attempted to recreate the appearance of the Savior to the Nephites as a backlit illustration of the Savior was slowly brought from pitch black to bright white to parallel the account in 3rd Nephi. It was something (pardon my redundancy) never to be forgotten.

  8. I love spiritual aesthetics too, Ben Huff. That’s probably why you and I both have multiple crossings of the river Tiber stamped onto our spiritual passports. But aesthetics takes a lot of time and energy. Before we start advocating it too strenuously for our own people, we should think seriously about the effort involved in creating those kinds of aesthetics and see what else that effort is currently being used for. We may be better off leaving the ‘bells and smells’ to the Catholics, and keep cadging invitations to Mass.

  9. Newsweek has some of the best religious history writers in the MSM. They do a great job dealing with the whole writing from a believers standpoint. I think they did a great job of capturing the context of the times and the confusion among Jesus’ followers. All of which points to the importance of Paul in creating Christianity as a new religion.

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