The word "Tenebrae" comes from the Latin meaning “darkness” and is commonly applied to the celebration of the Office of Readings (formerly Matins) and Morning Prayer (or Lauds) during the Triduum. A distinguishing feature of the service is the use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles to symbolize the final days in the life of Christ. As the Office proceeds, candles are gradually extinguished on what is called the Tenebrae “hearse”- a triangular 15 branch candlestick, consisting of 14 candles of unbleached wax, and a white (Christ) candle at the apex.
Many reasons have been suggested to explain the practical origins of this custom. Since the Office of Readings (Matins/Vigils) was celebrated during the night, and ended with Morning Prayer (Lauds) at sunrise, some scholars suggest that the lights needed to read and chant the Office were gradually extinguished as dawn approached.
Whatever the original reason, allegorical/spiritual meanings were soon attached to the hearse and candles. These meanings in turn popularized the practice. For example, a 9th century book describes the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours during the Triduum as follows: Also at this service certain candles are placed in the choir which are then extinguished one after the other, as a sign that Christ’s disciples went away one after another. But when all these candles are taken away, one still remains signifying Christ himself, who in his humanity died and was laid in the tomb, and rose from death on the third day, giving light to all who were dead and extinguished by despair.
This basic symbolism has remained as the Tenebrae hearse gives visual form to the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours during these sacred days. Through the readings and psalms of the Office that trace the story of Christ’s passion, through the music portraying his pathos, and through the power of silence and darkness suggesting the drama of this momentous day, we are invited to meditate on the great event of our salvation.
As candles are extinguished symbolizing the approaching darkness of Christ's death, we ponder the depth of his suffering; we remember the cataclysmic nature of his sacrifice and we see the hopelessness of a world without God. But through the small but persistent flame of the white Christ-candle at the conclusion of the service, we await with hope the joy of the Resurrection: Christ’s great victory over the darkness of sin and death that we will once again recall and celebrate at Easter.
(Based on Herbert Thurston’s Lent and Holy Week)