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How to… Observe Tenebrae

The Tenebrae hearse at the London Oratory (Charles Cole)

Tenebrae is a Passiontide service now rarely observed in the Catholic Church. Tenebrae is the Latin for “darkness” and the ceremony involved the gradual extinguishing of 15 candles arranged on a triangular “hearse” over Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It concludes with the strepitus, or “loud noise”, often the slamming shut of a book, in total darkness close to the end of the ritual, to represent the earthquake that followed the death of Christ. The final candle, hidden during the closing part of the service, is revealed.

Liturgical reforms starting with Pius XII led to the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer finally superseding Tenebrae by 1988. Where Tenebrae continues, it is often held just once over the three days, for instance, or with the number of candles varied, and the content changed. It is also celebrated at times other than in the evening, or in a concert form using extracts from the original.