Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holy Wednesday and Tenebrae

Darkness covered the whole land

when Jesus had been crucified;

and about the ninth hour he cried with a loud voice:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

And he bowed his head and handed over his spirit.

V. Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said:

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

R. And he bowed his head and handed over his spirit.

“Darkness covered the whole land.” The responsory giving Tenebrae its name is apt not only for the spiritual realities to which it speaks, but for the weather this Holy Week. It has been a very dark, rainy, grey and foreboding time these last days. Darkness has indeed covered the whole land with its chill and damp hand.

Like other Episcopal churches, St. Timothy’s offeres the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday. This day, sometimes called “Spy Wednesday” in past years because of associations with Judas finalizing his plans to betray Jesus, marks a transition from the first part of Holy Week into the Great Three Days, the Triduum. What we treat as one service today originally formed a portion of the monastic Night Office for the final three days of Holy Week. Such a luxurious use of time! Days and nights of contemplation, reflection, drawing out the implications for each participant. Tenebrae, even in the form most often encountered today, is perhaps the most reflective liturgy in the Church Year. It certainly isn’t for the faint of heart or the wildly extroverted. I remember one parishioner almost going into apoplexy over how long and introspective the service proved to be. However, it always surprises and delights me that a steady and dedicated group of worshippers attend this lengthy and highly poetic service. In it, we burrow deep into the Psalms, and even explore such obscure territory as the Song of Hezekiah from Isaiah, where we hear a man preparing to die saying: “My house is pulled down and I am uncovered, as when a shepherd strikes his tent./My life is rolled up like a bolt of cloth, the threads cut off from the loom.” A king who speaks out of a thousand years’ concentrated observation about life’s fragility! The rich imagery and limpid honesty of it all! This is pure joy for those of us who daily labor under the glare of florescent-lit poetical deserts – and in the contemporary Church’s arid, execrable attempts at “relevant” worship devoid of soul, depth, beauty.

Tenebrae is a time when it is perfectly permissible (and in fact, desired) to let go of normal considerations about time and even liturgical structure. So many Psalms, so much lamentation… and not even the Lord’s Prayer!

It is precisely in the liturgical use of lament I find perhaps the most compelling part of this service. Many great composers have written settings of the portions from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah used in this liturgy, and I have enjoyed hearing them in churches and on recordings. But, it is the simple setting for one person, chanting these plaintive verses very much as a personal lament with cosmic implications that affect me the most. The simplicity of this ancient language – the bringing of our utter helplessness before God in honesty and yet beauty – gives dignity even to our pain. It teaches me, year after year, that everything, absolutely everything, must be brought before the God who is Life. All must be placed upon the altar. Absolutely nothing held back.

When we do this, we are able to hear something we cannot when we remain “in charge.” We hear the profound and humbling teaching from St. Augustine about learning to forgive: “most of the time, when you think you are hating your enemy, you are hating your brother without knowing it.” Learning this alone would be enough! It is in order to become more like Christ that we walk this Holy Week journey and spend so much time listening, learning, sitting at the Master’s feet.

Tenebrae is not an essential service. Few parishes offer it in any form today. In an already busy time of the year it is in a sense a luxury. It has always seemed to me, though, that American Christianity is long on being busy and short on listening for directions. This tendency is only increasing in our digitized era. The kind of Christianity that results: a faddish, self-certain, proud, nervous, inflexible church, cut off from the ancient and undivided Faith by its own arrogance – precisely the opposite of the Gospel.

It is this sort of “darkness” that “covers the whole land” of the contemporary spiritual landscape. It is just these shadows with which we should struggle. Tonight, we do so by listening to and waiting with a man in the process of being betrayed. We may ask ourselves how we, in our own day, are doing the same thing. Finally, we give God the opportunity, in the words of the Lesson from Hebrews, to purify our conscience “from dead works to serve the living God.”

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