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April 1, 2015
Reading. Psalm. One candle out. Reading. Psalm. Two candles out. Reading. Psalm. Three candles out. Reading. Psalm. Four candles out. Reading. Psalm. Five candles out. Reading. Psalm. Six candles out. Reading. Psalm. Seventh candle out. Reading. Psalm. Eighth candle out. Reading. Psalm. Ninth candle goes away. Loud noise. Ninth candle comes back and we're done.

Why do we love Tenebrae? The psalms are so grim! So are the readings, for the most part -- they're theological reflections: not a story among them. So why do we like this? Is it the mystery of the gathering darkness? Is it the zen of it -- again and again and again, the same thing, washing over us? Is it the sudden chaos of the noise that follows the disappearance of the ninth candle -- Deacon Bob makes the best one, banging doors and dropping hymnals out in the dark vestibule until it sounds like somebody's breaking in the side door. Or is it just the bravery of the little ninth candle as it returns?

The congregation sits in the choir, not in the nave, and so they are close together, their handheld candles aiding each other, an ancient light to read by. It is not bright like the modern light upon which we have become dependent: Tenebrae -- which means"darkness" or "shadows" -- reminds us how non-negotiable a thing darkness was in the ancient world, how hard and dangerous it was to do anything at night. The psalms of Tenebrae are full of fear, of the pain of betrayal, full of foreboding.

This week is like a play whose ending we know. Some plays you don't need to see again; once is enough. But some plays are so good you can't ever see them too much: many's the time I have stood in the wings watching my favorite moment of another actor's Shakespeare performance, again and again, treasuring every gesture, every facial expression, every syllable, every night of the run, as often as I can. We never tire of hearing something wonderful. Holy Week is like that: it is a really good play. It doesn't matter that we know how it ends. We immerse ourselves in it again and again, down into the dark depths of it, allowing ourselves to experience the dread.
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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