The church where I served for ten years as pastor in New York City regularly included Tenebrae in its Good Friday schedule. Early in the evening, as darkness fell, the pews filled with people who came to participate in this reflective service from the Church’s monastic tradition.
Tenebrae, Latin for “shadows” or “darkness,” consists of chanted psalms, prayers, readings, and lamentations accompanied by sacred music. After each selection, a candle is extinguished on the candelabrum in the sanctuary until only one remains lit. And for a period of time, this candle, too, is removed and hidden, and the church is plunged into total darkness. Finally, the candle is returned in silence to its place, to burn as a herald of the resurrection.
The experience is meant to recreate the emotional and spiritual impact of the passion and death of Christ on those who witnessed his arrest, trial, execution, and entombment. And it does.
One song that has in recent years become a standard part of the Tenebrae service is “Pietà / The Silence and the Sorrow,” written by the Irish priest and composer Liam Lawton to memorialize the victims of a particularly horrific bombing during Ireland’s “troubles.” The melody and the words pierce the soul.
The refrain reads:
Who will come and share my sorrow,
Hold my heart ’til wake tomorrow?
Is there time that I could borrow?
Oh, oh, the silence and the sorrow.
Hearing these words, I would close my eyes and picture Michelangelo’s Pietà in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The image of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, freed from the nails that bound his hands and feet to the wood of the cross, strengthened my conviction that Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of all was made possible both by the fidelity of the Father who sustained him at every step and by the love of his mother who surrendered him to God for the redeeming purpose for which he came into this world.
I thought, too, of the haunting words of the “Stabat Mater,” said to have been written by the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi in the thirteenth century:
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking of her pain,
in that mother’s pain untold?
Lent and Holy Week before us, we are reminded of another inescapable truth: that Christ suffers today in the members of his mystical body, the church, indeed in all humanity created in the divine image. His wounds and brokenness are those of the innocent children of Aleppo and other places torn by sectarian strife and warfare. Christ dies in the victims of gun violence and drugs in our schools and our streets. And the Sorrowful Mother’s pain is joined to that of every mother, father, and loved one who feels the unbearable anguish of loss.
When we lift the body and blood of Christ at the consecration of the bread and wine in memory of him who gave his life for the world’s redemption and healing, let us pray for them too.
In This Issue
You’ll notice that this issue contains a few shorter articles. Some of you have told us that you prefer more concise writing.
We bring you the final installments of two articles: Maryknoller James H. Kroeger’s reflection on Pope Francis’ foundational insights on the priesthood and Sister Catherine Marie Caron’s essay on the Gift of Self in the life of Saint Peter Julian Eymard. But there is much more for you to read and to ponder. Blessings on your journey!
Anthony Schueller, SSS