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Tenebrae on Wednesday

Tenebrae candles


The ancient Holy Week service of Tenebrae is now often held on Wednesday and this year there are opportunities to be present online.

‘This arduous service has mystical beauty,’ observed art historian Brian Sewell who described it as ‘the most disturbing and convincing service’, which was also ‘poetic, theatrical and terrible’.

The responses in this service, which developed between the 8th and early 12th century, are sometimes described as ‘ethereal’.

The name Tenebrae comes from the Latin word for darkness or shadows. It is a combination of monastic matins and lauds for Maundy Thursday sung in anticipation.

The focus of the two hour service is a triangular candle stand known as a hearse which is placed before the altar. Hearse is corruption of harrow suggested by the spikes for the candles.

There are normally 15 candles –7 on each sloping side
representing Mary Magdalene, Mary wife of Cleophas and the twelve Apostles whilst on top there is a white candle for Christ. This white candle was first seen at York in the 11th century.

The number of lights has varied with the Sarum Rite (Salisbury) prescribing 24.

The candles, which can be unbleached as at a funeral, are extinguished one by one as each psalm ends recalling a deepening gloom as Christ is abandoned by his followers.

Near the beginning is the singing of the Lamentations in the form of three lessons from the Old Testament’s First Lamentation of Jeremiah (Lamentations 1:1-14).

The sad haunting chant forms part of the Jewish liturgy which would have been heard by Christ.

Near the end of the service there is the Song of Moses which will be heard again on Saturday after the Easter Vigil’s third reading.

During the Benedictus the other lights in church are put out leaving only the white candle at the top of the triangle burning. This light is then hidden behind the altar whilst Psalm 51, usually Allegri’s Miserere, is sung.

Soon after a loud noise is made off-stage like a clap of thunder. This is the Great Noise said to represent confusion, the crowd seeking Christ’ arrest at Gethsemane or an earthquake at Christ’s death or resurrection.

However it is not over as the hidden light is brought back to the pinnacle of the triangle. This represents Christ overcoming death on Easter morning.

St Paul’s Covent Garden is well-known for Tenebrae on Wednesday evening. This year there will be a recording online at 7.30pm.

Winchester Cathedral is making a recording available at 5.30pm.

The online St John’s Smith Square Holy Week Festival is making a Tenebrae recording available online from Wednesday.

Tenebrae can be seen live from All Saints Margaret Street W1 at 7pm.

Trinity Wall Street in New York is broadcasting Tenebrae live at 11pm BST.

Holy Week begins tonight

Life-size image of Christ on a donkey has been part of Palm Sunday processions in Germany

‘Holy Week … is the peculiar privilege of Christians and should be their delight, their share in the sacred act of theatre, their most important week of all the year,’ wrote Observer journalist Patrick O’Donovan.

Holy Week, which begins tonight with Christ arriving at Bethany, enables us to live with Christ his final week on earth.

We can enter Jerusalem with Christ (Palm Sunday procession), be present at the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday evening Mass), kneel in the garden of Gethsemane (Thursday evening watch), walk with Christ as He carries the Cross and then watch at the foot of the Cross (Three Hours Service on Good Friday) and rejoice at his rising from the dead very early on Easter morning (Easter Vigil).

It is a week- long pilgrimage not of re-enactment but liturgical participation in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.

This year we can follow much of the liturgy on the internet with useful service sheets available here.

But at home we can also delve into the events of week by reading the accounts in the Bible.

On which day did Jesus overturn the tables in The Temple? Was it on his arrival on Palm Sunday when he had been given such a warm welcome or was it on Monday morning?

Also, the incident with the ointment, if not Saturday night, then maybe this happened on Tuesday or Wednesday night.

With lockdown and restricted entry to many churches this will be a different Holy Week but it could, using our rare time to read, be a deeper and rewarding one.

Nine months to Christmas

Mary’s house being carried by angels from Nazareth to Loreto

Today Thursday 25 March is a bright pause in Lent to look ahead nine months to Christmas.

If Christmas is on 25 December so 25 March must be the Annunciation. On this day we recall the Virgin Mary being visited in her Nazareth home by an angel and informed that she would give birth to a son to be called Jesus.

Whilst confined to our home we can think of the modern basilica in Nazareth which covers the site of Mary’s home or Loreto in Italy where the front of the house is now preserved within another church.

Another focus today can be the custom now established in Lebanon and France where Christians and Muslims meet together on The Annunciation to honour Mary and strengthen friendship.

Next week we shall think of Mary at the foot of the Cross.

Lilies in Southwark Cathedral for The Annunciation. Mary’s lily features on the cathedral’s ancient shield.

St joseph’s Day in lent

Mosaic of St. Joseph in the Church of the Holy Family in Linz, Austria.

Today Friday 19 March is St Joseph’s Day and we are remembering him in this year of St Joseph marking the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX declaring St Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church.

He is also patron of workers, including carpenters, and fathers.

We know Joseph as Jesus’s step father who accepted Mary his wife being the mother of Jesus.

Next week on Thursday 25 March, The Annunciation, we shall recall the moment Mary accepted her role.

Today is Father’s Day in Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Pope Francis offers this prayer to St Joseph:

Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy, and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.

Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.

St Patrick’s Day quiet again as in the past

St Patrick’s tomb at Down Cathedral

Today’s 17 March St Patrick’s Day celebrations will for a second year be muted by the virus.

But this is not rare for until very recently St Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a quiet family day like Christmas Day with even the pubs closed.

Patrick is also patron of Montserrat in the West Indies and Nigeria.

Church alive at home

Hugging Staplehurst church in Kent

If it’s Mothering Sunday it’s the middle of Lent.

Mothering Sunday, 14 March this year, is about both remembering our mothers and acknowledging our Mother Church.

This is why in normal times at some parish churches the congregation marks Mothering Sunday by going outside, joining hands and surrounding the building.

They hug their church.

But the church is also the people. So although many of us are this year stuck at home and unable to go into our own church building we can still, as the living never closed church, keep the calendar.

On Mothering Sunday it is an old tradition to have a simnel cake.

Next Sunday 21 March is Passion Sunday and if you are in the north-east you might still keep the tradition of eating carlin peas for Sunday lunch. Try having some sent by post

In almost two weeks time we shall be approaching Palm Sunday when we can with Christ go up to Jerusalem in real time for Holy Week.

Buy some figs, dried figs or fig biscuits to eat on Holy Week’s Fig Monday 29 March just as we can have Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday.

Some customs can be maintained now and as we begin to follow Jesus’s movements day by day towards Good Friday and Easter.

Carlin peas for lunch on Passion Sunday in Northumberland

Twelfth Night not the end of Christmas

A crown if you find the bean in your slice of galette des rois in France

Is tonight Twelfth Night or is it tomorrow Wednesday?

Tonight Tuesday used to be Twelfth Night for everybody but by the time of the Restoration in the mid-17th century it had become the custom to keep Twelfth Night on 6 January.

Samuel Pepys wrote on 6 January 1665: ‘At night home, being Twelfthnight, and there chose my piece of cake.’

But tonight is certainly Twelfth Night in Spain and France where the Twelfth Night cake will be cut for the first slice.

In Spain the Magi would normally be welcomed tonight in street processions.

Tomorrow Wednesday 6 January is The Epiphany when the Three Kings, representing non Jews and many nations, seek out Baby Jesus.

Do we take the decorations down now? It may be that the tree is undressed or even removed but many will, especially this year, keep the cards up until Tuesday 2 February, Candlemas.

Candlemas is when the Holy Family leaves Bethlehem.

We can stay with Christmas in real time and at Candlemas maybe reply to some of the card senders who are also experiencing this difficult time.

Christmas is for life and not just for one day

The Crib, with relics of the original, displayed in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

Just after 3pm on Christmas Eve you can hear on Radio 4 the start of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge.

In the gathering darkness the famous service will take us into Christmas night.

Christmas cannot be cancelled. No party, no turkey is not the same as no Christmas.

The twelve days of Christmas will take us into January with a number of special days when we remember the Christian martyrs who died for the faith taught by the Child Jesus: Stephen (on Boxing Day), Thomas Becket (Tuesday) and James the Great (Wednesday).

The Wise Men arrive a week later on Twelfth Night in January. The Holy Family leaves Bethlehem on 2 February.

This year we can have a slow Christmas.

Mary & Joseph set out for Bethlehem

O Sapientia

Mary and Joseph are said to have set out today from Nazareth on their 90 mile journey to Bethlehem which they reach on 24 December.

It was once the custom in monasteries to toll the loudest bell as each of the O Antiphons was sung over the coming days to remind people that Mary and Joseph were on their way.

The name for today’s antiphon, said or sung before the Magnificat at Evening Prayer, is O Sapientia, meaning O Wisdom.

‘What was born in Bethlehem was the Wisdom of God,’ said Pope Benedict XVI. ‘In the fullness of time this Wisdom assumed a human face, the face of Jesus.’

The O Antiphons begin to explain who the Messiah is.

The various and often beautiful translations used today can be found in Common Worship, New English Hymnal, the Missal and the Breviary.

Eleanor Parker has the best explanation of where we are and how these days have been observed in the past.

St Lucy’s Day 2020

Lucia in Stockholm

Firecrackers in Naples at 5.50am this Sunday morning will have welcomed the feast of Santa Lucia.

In normal times the church near the waterfront would have been open all night following an eve of feast street procession at 10pm.

In Venice at San Geremia, where many visit the body of St Lucy and candles glow all day, the number at Mass is being limited to a hundred with entry strictly by the main door and the exit via the canal side.

Naples is where the song sung all over Sweden today orginated. There the virus will not prevent girls dressing up with a Lucia crown at home in early morning to bring special buns to their parents and others in the house.

St Lucy wore the crown of candles so that her hands could be free to carry food for prisoners.

Several Lucia services in Britain are going ahead with social distancing including one this evening at Southwark Cathedral.

Today is one of the Advent steps to Christmas. The light from the crown of Lucia which brought relief is also a reminder of the light of Christ.

Lucia celebration at Stockholm Cathedral