Tonight I attended my first “Tenebrae” service, held at Resurrection’s mother church, Trinity Anglican in Marysville. Tenebrae is Latin for “into the shadows.” The service is intended to recreate the emotional aspects of Christ’s betrayal, abandonment, and the agony of his crucifixion. The heart of the service takes place toward the end, when candles are lit to coincide with a number of Passion narratives recited by different readers. After each narrative, the reader goes up to a table full of candles and extinguishes one. Thus, one by one all of the candles are smothered, until the Scripture passage (John 19:31-42) where Christ is put into the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and the room goes completely dark.
Dramatic? Absolutely. Some might say overly, unnecessarily so. Christ has risen! Why dwell on the sadness of the crucifixion? I think Ken Collins (www.kencollins.com) puts it well: “If you see only the happy ending of a movie, everyone who saw it from the start is elated, but you go away saying, ‘So they were all hugging each other? So what?’ But if you see the beginning and the middle part, with all the suspense and grief, you understand what the characters overcame, and the happy ending is all the happier. So to me, attending the Easter service without attending the Holy Week services is like watching the happy ending of the movie without seeing the middle—you only rob yourself of joy.”
But there is something else. The whole purpose of Lent is to try in some way to relate to Christ’s suffering and death in order to understand the depths to which God went to secure our redemption. The price was enormous, but if we never think about it, we may miss it. In Philippians 3:10, Paul states that there is value in knowing Christ, “—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” But again, if we never think about Christ’s sufferings, the value that God places on empathizing with Christ and his agony is completely lost on us. Even more so what it means to become “like Him” in death.
One particular Lent, spring was late in coming. There was still plenty of snow in the high country (like this year), and I went snowshoeing with a friend around Ice House Lake. At the turn-around point we sat down on top of boulders to rest; and being thirsty, I drank all of my water. Hiking back, I began to get dehydrated. Then I got really thirsty. Not good. I looked around at all of the snow surrounding me and practically drooled in my panic, knowing that I shouldn’t take even one bite of the white stuff (eating snow would only make the dehydration worse).
Driving home that day I thought about John 19:28, where Jesus makes the statement, “I thirst.” The Roman soldiers responded by filling a sponge with water and vinegar and lifting it to Jesus’s lips on a stick of some sort for him to suck some of the liquid out of the sponge. I thought I knew what real thirst was after my face-off with dehydration.
But tonight, another image came to me that brought Jesus’s agony into sharp focus. As I listened to the reader retell this part of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I was reminded of my dear husband mere hours before his own death last year, looking at me intently (he was unable to speak) and smacking his dried cracked lips. He hadn’t had anything to drink in nearly three weeks and he was absolutely desperate for water.
In a completely inadequate effort to relieve his distress, I was allowed to dip a sponge-on-a-stick into a cup of ice chips and rub it onto his lips. He wasn’t supposed to drink any of the water, yet he would take the sponge into his mouth and suck out whatever moisture could be found there. My heart broke into millions of pieces witnessing him suffer so.
Remembering this horrific episode tonight, a guttural sound I didn’t know I was capable of making escaped my lips, as I realized how fiercely thirsty my Lord Jesus must have been. True empathy was born in my heart at that moment. At least, as much as is possible for a very fortunate American Christian such as I, who has never known anything of real suffering on Jesus’s behalf.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this knowledge, this participation, deepens one’s faith. How so? Threefold, at least: 1) it deepens my appreciation for what Christ suffered on my behalf; 2) it nurtures gratitude for God’s great gift of salvation through the forgiveness of sins…my sins (read Luke 7:36-50); and 3) it makes me a better witness for Christ, as I am now able to identify for others the lengths to which God went to save them, as well.
The Tenebrae service ends with a bare altar in near complete darkness. In the silence I could hear the sighs and sniffles of my fellow “participants” in Christ’s passion…many moved, just as I was. With no benediction to mark the dismissal, we were free to leave the sanctuary at our leisure, musing, and looking forward to Easter when we can say (with renewed and grateful hearts), “Alleluia! Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!”