Explainer: What is a Tenebrae service?

By Luke Hopkins (chaplain)

Tenebrae is a Christian tradition that involves a service held in the dark after a series of candles are sequentially extinguished. But what is the symbolism of the candles? Why is there a period of complete darkness? Who is this service for? Our Chaplain explains.

Tenebrae, drawing of a lone candle in dark

To help explain, let’s start with Shakespeare:


O Ratcliff, I fear, I fear,


Nay, good my lord, be not afraid of shadows.


By the apostle Paul, shadows to-night
Have struck more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers
Armed in proof, and led by shallow Richmond.

So says King Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III. On the eve of battle, left alone in the dark, Richard is confronted by himself and all that he has done to take the crown.

Being alone at night is hardly a completely foreign experience for any of us.

Even as children there is something instinctual in us that tells us to keep away from the dark forest or from shadows under the bed. We are scared of the dark and the isolation therein. So why should Christians perform a service called ‘Tenebrae’, named after the Latin word for ‘darkness’ or ‘shadows’?

First, a little context.

The celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event within the annual Christian calendar. The week leading up to Easter Sunday is often known as Holy Week for Christians. The main three services on the calendar occur on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

On Maundy Thursday we mark Jesus Christ’s Last Supper with his students on the night he was arrested. On Good Friday we mark Jesus’ trial, torture and crucifixion by the Romans. On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus (in which Jesus passes through death, as it were, and out the other side into a new creation).

An old tradition has risen to new prominence in the last few decades within many churches in the lead up to these great three days (sometimes called the ‘Triduum’). The service of Tenebrae is now often held during Holy Week as a kind of introduction to the main services over the Triduum.

Historically, Tenebrae was a special combination of monastic services held during Holy Week. These would have been held at midnight and ended with morning prayer. The liturgy is in three parts or ‘nocturns’. Each nocturn turns our attention to particular passages from the Bible or other select readings from the Christian tradition. We perform an abridged form of this ancient service in the Chapel at Trinity College on the Wednesday night of Holy Week at 7pm with our college choir, who play the same part the monks and nuns once would have sung in their monasteries.

The physical focus of our version of Tenebrae here at Trinity is a special candelabra known as the ‘hearse’, which is lit by 13 candles. There are 12 candles for the 12 disciples and the central apex candle represents Jesus himself. Over the course of the three nocturns, candles on the hearse are extinguished until the single apex candle is left. This act, held in the darkness of the night, is symbolic of the abandonment of Jesus by his closest companions until he was left to face his torture and death alone.

At the end of the service, the single candle is taken away and extinguished (symbolic of Christ’s death). After a loud noise or rumble, the candle lit again re-emerges and is placed back on the candelabra (symbolic of Christ’s resurrection).

As such, the service of Tenebrae symbolically plays out the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection for us.

If you know what it means to feel alone in the silence of the night, Tenebrae is a service for you. If you want to know more about what Christianity is all about, Tenebrae is a service for you.

If you dislike the way death is often sanitised in the modern world and get annoyed by people who insist of being perpetually happy even the midst of tragedy and grief, Tenebrae is a service for you.

If you know what it means to be abandoned, betrayed, or lost – Tenebrae is a service for you.

We mark this special service in Holy Week because Christ knows what those things mean too, and, whether we know it or not, he is always with us in those moments. He knows what it is to be left alone. He knows what it is to feel isolated. He knows what it is to die.

The central message of Tenebrae is that even though the darkness may appear stronger or even victorious at times, the light of Christ shines brighter and brighter forever. God has gone into the shadowy place, so that even there he is not absent and we need not be so afraid.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

There will be a choral service of Tenebrae held in the Trinity College Chapel on Wednesday 13 April at 7pm. All welcome.

By Father Luke Hopkins


07 Apr 2022
Category: Chapel