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The Office of Tenebrae: Old vs. ’55/62 Rite

ONE OF THE most dramatic and mystical ceremonies of Holy Week was the chanting in larger churches of the Office of Tenebrae (“Darkness”) on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. This consists of the Offices of Matins (nine psalms, nine readings) and Lauds (five psalms, the Benedictus, an antiphon, Psalm 50 and a collect) from the Breviary. These are chanted in a darkening church, during which fifteen candles on a triangular frame (hearse) are extinguished one by one as the service progresses.

At the end, all is in darkness as the choir chants the antiphon Christus Factus Est (Christ was made obedient unto death) and then Psalm 50, the Miserere. Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) composed his now-famous Miserere for liturgical use at this point during the chanting of Tenebrae in the papal chapel.

The celebrant somberly chants a collect. All in the church then bang their books on the pews, a sound symbolizing the earthquake at the death of Our Lord. One candle (symbolizing Christ) is held in the darkness at the side of the altar, and then placed atop the hearse. All depart in silence in the darkness.

In the 1955 Holy Week rites, the beautiful mystical features of the ceremony were abolished:

• Except for Wednesday evening in a church where the bishop will celebrate the Chrismal Mass on Holy Thursday morning, Matins and Lauds must be recited in the morning on all three days. So, the very notion of the encroaching tenebrae itself — darkness — disappears. Instead, the church is becoming lighter during the service.

The 1955 reformers (Bugnini and company) introduced this change on the basis of their “principle of truth,” one they would also use in the creation of the Novus Ordo. They maintained that the progressive extinguishing of candles originated because Matins was at first celebrated in the very early morning; fewer and fewer candles were needed to read the books as the service went on because the sun was rising. So, the sacristan extinguished unneeded candles — energy saving, perhaps, by a monastic Al Gore.

But so what? The liturgy is loaded with mystical ceremonies that were originally connected with practical functions. The reformers destroyed the symbolism.

• Also abolished in 1955: Psalm 50, the Miserere, dramatically recited in the darkness, either in a quiet monotone, or in a heart-rending polyphonic setting. Good bye, Allegri — see you in the concert hall.

• And finally, Bugnini and company declared that the earthquake goes. The reformers’ “principle of truth” tells us that it originated with the double knock on the choir stall that the superior gave to signal then end of an Office.

So, no more fit fragor et strepitus — the dramatic, mournful thunder in the darkness.

Just a knock in a light-filled church to herald breakfast — and eventually in 1969, “Happy are they who are called to his supper.”


Traditional Holy Week Ceremonies
St. Gertrude the Great Church, West Chester, Ohio

WED, THU, FRI of Holy Week
6:30 PM Tenebrae