Monastics in the Middle Ages celebrated Tenebrae at 2 AM (a combination of matins said at night and lauds said just before dawn) on each of the final three days of Holy Week. In 1955 to facilitate the participation of laypersons, each night’s Tenebrae in the Roman Catholic church was moved to the previous evening. Thus, Maundy Thursday’s Tenebrae was moved to the evening of Holy Wednesday. Betrayal was the former theme of Wednesday evening’s readings, although the assignment of specific readings, lamentations, and hymns to each Tenebrae is no longer practiced. Tenebrae begins with fifteen lit candles set on a triangular stand, or hearse. One candle is extinguished after each reading (nine during matins and five during lauds) until only one lit candle remains. Tenebrae’s name (literally, darkness) stems from the darkness at the service’s conclusion. The lit candle, symbolic of Christ, is hidden behind the altar to signify evil’s victory. A loud noise is made to symbolize the earthquake at Christ’s death. Before the congregation departs, the lit candle is replaced on the triangle’s top. This currently is associated with Christ’s resurrection, but it may have originally merely been a light for the departing congregation.
~Dr. Gil Haas, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
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