The world of liturgical celebrations is, as I have noted, not the world I grew up in as a Christian. Only during the last ten years have I begun to value these traditions and how they touch both the body and soul powerfully. Good Friday evening brought a new term into my vocabulary, which to some readers will show my previous ignorance. (All one can do about ignorance is work at removing it once you see it. It is a good thing to do.)
The Good Friday service I attended last evening was a Tenebrae Service. The service included a liturgy built around the events of Good Friday. Various prayers of confession and contemplative music that was fitting to the solemnity of the evening were used. The hymns included: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee," "Ah, Holy Jesus," "Go to Dark Gethsemane," and "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" (I must wonder how some contemporary music could be suited for such an occasion but I am not passing judgment by asking the question since I still have more to learn.)
The word tenebrae means "darkness." The term is widely used in our day to refer to a solemn service in which candles are progressively snuffed out and the room light is slowly removed from in order to remind the worshiper of the hours of Christ’s suffering and the progressive snuffing out of his life on this dark day. The liturgy followed this progression: (1) A Prayer of Confession (2) Darkness of Betrayal and Desertion (3) Darkness of Denial (4) Darkness of Judgment (5) Darkness of Suffering (6) Darkness of Death (7) Darkness of the Tomb. The entire service carried us, through Scripture, prayer and music, through the events of that dark, but glorious, day.
Two deep impressions struck me last evening besides the overall theme of the entire service. First, the hymn "Go to Dark Gethsemane," a 19th century work by James Montgomery. It includes a deeply moving line which says: "Calv’ry’s mournful mountain climb; there adoring at his feet, mark the miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete." I was struck deeply by the words "Mark the miracle of time . . ." Yes, in the miracle of time "God’s own sacrifice was complete." What an amazing truth! To believe it is life, to deny it is death. We are saved by his sacrifice, not by ours. We are saved by his death, and resurrection, not by our good works or devotion. We are guilty sinners but he is a gracious Savior. Let us flee to him again and again for his mercy because of the miracle of time and what he had done for us.
The second deep impression I formed came at the end of the service. We heard the text of Matthew 27:57-60 and then concluded with "Solemn Reproaches" based upon Psalm 78. (Read the Psalm if you have not done so lately.) These reproaches have been used in the Western Church for centuries to recount the church’s continual acts of rebellion, like that of Israel, while the text also reminds us that God has been faithful. Each section read was followed by a solemn singing of the words: "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us." Then the last candle was extinguished, the sanctuary covered with darkness, and we left in silence to prepare for the Easter Vigil and Resurrection Day. While in silence and almost total darkness we recessed by following the Paschal Candle, the ancient symbol of the Church. This candle is situated in liturgical churches near the baptismal font and is also lit for funerals. It reminds us of the paschal sacrifice of the lamb of God for our sin.
Again, I was reminded of the sheer loss of beauty and reverence in much of what I knew as worship growing up outside of this type of Christian tradition. I am not condemning non-liturgical churches in saying this but I personally can not go back to the "brain centered" services that have removed all sacred symbols and holy actions. I realize now how powerfully the mind, body and soul are united in the work (lit: the liturgy) of holy worship offered by the church, the people of God, to the true and living God. No tradition, in my view, gets all this perfectly right but this should not stop the renewing and faithful church from seeking to recover the ancient paths for the purpose of a future faith.