Of all of our services of worship during the year, the Maundy Thursday service is perhaps the most meaningful to me, and the most disquieting. At our church, we share Communion and also have a Tenebrae service, which is a liturgy that has roots all the way back to the fourth century. The word tenebrae is Latin for shadows. The service consists primarily of reading the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion in sections and extinguishing the light in the sanctuary gradually after each section until the room is dark, save the light of the Christ Candle. Everyone leaves in silence. We will gather again on Resurrection Sunday.
Though the passages are read thoughtfully, the candles put out quietly, and the service has a meditative tone, there is something visceral and unsettling about the experience, so much so that I find I’m almost agitated when I get to church on this particular Thursday each year. For much of the gospels, Jesus is the subject of the sentences; on this night he becomes the Direct Object of vicious verbs: they kissed him, betrayed him, abandoned him, spat on him, slapped him, whipped him, flogged him, beat him, questioned him, mocked him, ridiculed him, put thorns in his head, dragged him out to Golgotha, crucified him.
With each action, another light went out in the sanctuary. Those of us reading last did so by a single candlelight. The darkness outside the church was on pace with our failing candles, shadows pouring through the windows as we grew our own inside, until there was one light. One single light.
In our service, the final acts are for Ginger to carry the Christ Candle out of the sanctuary as we sing “Were You There.” Tonight, the choir sang the first verse, the congregation sang the second verse, and I sang the third from the balcony as the candle left the room:
were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble . . .
I left the verse unfinished and turned to ring the church bell thirty-three times to commemorate each of the years Jesus walked on the earth. As those tones drew to a close, Ginger returned the candle to the front of the church and we sat in silence. People then left when they chose to do so.
Our church bell is as quaint as they come, just like our white clapboard New England church building. A rope hangs down in the balcony from the steeple and requires a fair amount of effort to render a ring. Outside the church, you can hear the bell. Inside the church, you hear the muffled sound of the bell, the scrape and moan of the rope going back and forth, and – tonight – the labored breathing of the middle-aged man pulling hard on the rope and trying to keep count of the tolls. At about number twenty, I must say I wished Jesus had died a few years younger. At thirty pulls, I was glad he didn’t live to be my age. When I got to thirty-three, I stopped the rope from moving and the bell from ringing and I sat down in the nearest chair, my arms weak and my shoulders sore, to catch my breath as everyone else sat in silence. I thought back to the first hymn of the evening:
I take, O Cross, thy shadow for my abiding place
When I was working as a minister at another church, I decided to get the point of my sermon across by having the people in the congregation move around. (I’m trying now to remember exactly what the point was.) I wanted those on the right side to move to the left and vice versa as a tangible way of showing our need to find new perspectives in our lives. There were a couple of things I had not anticipated logistically, but things went pretty well. The following Tuesday at deacons’ meeting, I asked for feedback, since it was something they had not done before. Everyone seemed to appreciate the idea except for one who said with a perturbed tone, “I come to church to feel comfortable.”
I knew right then I was not going to be one of her favorite preachers. As the old saying goes, I think we ought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. On my way to work today, the discussion on NPR centered on pressuring China to bring about change in Darfur, since China is one of the few governments in the world that has a relationship with the Sudanese government. As one guest noted, “China buys 2/3rds of Sudan’s oil. China’s investments in Sudan have made the US sanctions irrelevant largely in Sudan.” Much of the discussion centered on using the 2008 Olympics, scheduled for Beijing, as a focus of shaming China into action. One of the callers said something about moving slowly because so much was at stake politically. Eric Reeves who was pressing the issue said to the host, “I’m on Darfur time, so I don’t care about the politics. On Darfur time, ten thousand people die every month. On Darfur time, four and a half million people have been displaced and are in need of urgent attention right now. On Darfur time, there is no room for political maneuvering; we must act now.”
I wondered, as the bell was wringing me, how the people outside the church tonight interpreted what they heard. We, on the inside were keeping time with each toll, counting the years of Jesus’ life, watching the lights go out and the shadows grow, setting our hearts and our clocks for Easter. For our neighbors around their supper tables or in front of their televisions, I wondered if they were curious or annoyed or nonplussed. I was moved, rattled, exhausted, disquieted, encouraged. After everything, shadows and all, the light was still burning.
I could see it through the window, even when I got to my car on the other side of the street.
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Our church has an Agape Meal before the Maundy Thursday service. It’s a simple meal of stew, water, and a variety of bread brought by the families who are gathering for the meal. Then the extra bread is used for communion. Last night I took a section of the “brown” bread. It ended up being rye bread and left a very unique sensory experience. It was kind of salty and unexpected. It seemed to be the right choice for the right night.
Thank you for sharing your Lenten journals. It has been a blessing.
What a terrific, memorable service. One thing I desperately miss about moving towards a more contemporary church culture (though it is my choice to serve in this way), is that we have left behind much of the Lenten traditions that I recall from my Methodist upbringing. Since I have some influence in this area, and because we are given to experimenting with ways to unsettle people, I am thinking ahead towards next year. I think I will push harder to incorporate something like what you’ve detailed about this service…
Thanks for allowing me to live it through your description.
Thanks for sharing your Maundy Thursday experience. I enjoy reading about what other churches do.
At our church, we share communion and footwashing on Maundy Thursday. We have Tennebrae on Good Friday. When we are finished extinguishing all but the Christ candle, our Pastor picks up the candle, raises it high for a long pause, and then slams it down on the altar to extinguish it. The impact of that loud crash, extinguishing the light of Christ, after such a quiet service with long silences, is very powerful. It is without fail the most meaningful service of the year.
Wow, I’m getting goosebumps thinking about tonight.
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I have always loved Tenebrae. It’s such a lovely, and disturbing, service. I’m with you on afflicting the comfortable – if you are comfortable with Christianity, then you probably aren’t practicing it. Wasn’t it Chesterton who said that the problem wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting, but that it had never really been tried?
A blessed Passiontide to you, and all the joy and peace you can handle on Sunday.