It is Holy Week. Specifically it is Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper and the day we at Cleveland Park Church remember, celebrate, and experience Christ’s passion in our Service of Tenebrae.
I join with Pastor Ellen in inviting you to come to service tonight at 7pm. The Service of Tenebrae is one of my personal favorites in the entire liturgical year for its beauty, simplicity, and power. Plus, I’ve been told that our choir has been hard at work rehearsing music that will be interwoven with the traditional readings and increasing shadows and darkness to add even more haunting mystery and depth to this special service.
Ordinarily, I’d say a special performance from our choir would be reason enough for all of us to make the extra effort to be in church to hear it! But back to Tenebrae, and what it means for me and can possibly mean to you.
I first was really exposed to Holy Week services and the Service of Tenebrae in high school. The senior high school youth group at my church growing up – Senior Pilgrim Fellowship, or Senior PF – was responsible for leading the Good Friday and Easter Sunrise services atop Hine Hill (which was in the middle of a corn field at the time and now has been redeveloped as single family homes). As a member of the adult choir, I also had to sing at the Maundy Thursday service in addition to 2 of the 3 post-sunrise Easter services. Holy Week had instantaneously become a very big thing in my life!
Being in high school, though, fortuitously presented additional lenses through which to expand and enhance my fledgling understanding of what was going on in the numerous hours I was suddenly spending at church. As luck would have it, we were studying Jean Anouilh’s retelling of Antigone in my AP French class and one of the other area high schools that was known to have one of the best drama programs in Connecticut was staging it. In brief, Anouilh wrote his Antigone during the German occupation of France when all writing was heavily censored. He used this particular Greek tragedy of a young woman insisting on properly burying her brothers despite the law of the state forbidding it to give voice to protest against unjust governments, specifically the German occupation. In his version, as opposed to the original Greek, you get to see how Antigone would have liked her life to have been able to be different – she would have liked to have married her fiancé, to have remained with her sister – but the death of her brothers in battle and the law against their burial meant that she has a different destiny, one which she clearly recognizes and powerfully owns despite wishing it were otherwise. She must do what is right and therefore be put to death. The play gives voice and life and power to what it is like on all sides to be part of the living out of such a challenging, all consuming destiny.
Christ, in his passion, was also living out a challenging, all consuming destiny. He was called to be betrayed and crucified, and in so doing assure us all eternal life and salvation. And while he may have flinched at times, he did not waver. On Maundy Thursday, we have the ability to spend time and deliberately be with again those words and destiny filled roles that all had to take place just as they did in order for the promise of Easter to be realized. Like Antigone, Christ’s passion commemorated through Tenebrae is high tragedy. Deliberate in its march to death and darkness and silence; full of the power in both action and inaction; laying bare universal human shortcomings so that we can see ourselves for who we are AND what called and loved and encouraged to become. Tragedy for tragedy’s sake is important for what it teaches – and it makes the great joy of Easter all the sweeter!