“Darkness covered the whole land when Jesus had been crucified.”
When I was in hospital for cancer surgery, one of the more poignant moments was on the night before the operation. As the afternoon light failed the reality of what was before me grew. I couldn’t kid myself: it was going to happen. The last preparations were made, my family left, and night descended. Darkness covered the whole land for me.
It was in this moment I remembered something from our worship: the darkness of Tenebrae, a service usually offered on Wednesday of Holy Week and the name of which means “darkness” or “shadows” in Latin. It takes that name from one particular line in the Gospel, the darkness at the time of Christ’s death on the cross, which is in turn used as an antiphon in the liturgy. The entire service is a meditative embrace of the darkness, fear, anxiety, and clinging to hope found in the waning hours before Christ’s death.
The fact that the Church not only accepts but enters into this part of human experience right away marks it as different from many parts of the American scene, with the culture's heady mixture of self-gratification, forced positivism, and denial.
Darkness and shadow. The faith we live requires us to “go there” because humans often must, and our Lord did. Each Holy Week we repeatedly embrace the reality of darkness and fear, anxiety and pain. They are part and parcel of our existence, and no disciple worth the name would avoid them.
As I made it through the night before surgery, I was conscious of both my anxieties and of the fact that Jesus had been here before me. I wasn’t doing this alone. It makes all the difference to know this.
In the darkness of Tenebrae, the humiliation of the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, and in the profound encounter between life and death in the Good Friday liturgy, we Christians accept the reality of the shadows of life. But we do so always in the light of Christ. Just as the last remaining candle burns at the end of Tenebrae…providing light and hope after so much darkness…so we go into the truth of our lives always aware that Christ has been there before and is still there with us.
Darkness no longer covers the land completely; the earnest of that New Day of salvation is here—always.