Tenebrae liturgy an opportunity to reflect and contemplate events of Holy Week

By Bernard Kirkpatrick KSS, 27 March 2023
A seminarian of the Diocese of Parramatta extinguishing a candle during the 2022 Tenebrae service in St Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


Parishioners from across Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains are invited to attend a unique liturgy to commence the pinnacle week of our Catholic faith.

On Holy Monday 3 April, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, will be hosting the Office of Tenebrae liturgy at 7.30pm. Presided over by Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, the liturgy is based on the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer of Tuesday in Holy Week in the present Divine Office.

Within the structure of the service, which includes congregational psalm singing and hearing from scripture,  St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir has prepared a number of beautiful choral “responsories” from the great tradition of renaissance polyphonic masterpieces. These provide a perfect ambience for personal reflection and contemplation of the events we commemorate leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The word Tenebrae – Latin for ‘darkness’ or ‘shadows’ – is the name applied to the combined services from the Liturgy of the Hours of Matins (Office of Readings) and Lauds (Morning Prayer). In centuries past, Tenebrae was celebrated on the last three days of Holy Week, and from medieval times came to be anticipated on the preceding evenings, that is Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. After the revision of the Holy Week liturgies in 1955, promulgated by Pope Pius XII, the hours for celebrating the Sacred Triduum were restored to the evening hours for Holy Thursday, Good Friday afternoon for the Solemn Commemoration of the Passion, and night time (after Sunset on Holy Saturday or before Sunrise on Easter Sunday) for the Easter Vigil (previously celebrated on Saturday morning!)  As a result, the custom of praying Tenebrae fell away due to the displacement of the hours.

Members of the St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir participate in the Tenebrae service at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, during Holy Week 2021. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.

In recent times, interest in celebrating Tenebrae has increased, partly due to its beautiful tradition of chanting the psalms, scriptural and sacred readings, and the rituals and symbolism of extinguishing candles throughout the service, leading us from light into darkness. This contrasts with the Easter Vigil, where we wait in darkness at the beginning of the vigil, then light candles which culminate in the blazing light of the resurrected Christ represented by the Paschal Candle.

The Tenebrae liturgy culminates in the dramatic moment of the “strepitus”, when all present participate in creating a thunderous noise in the darkness, symbolising the earthquake which accompanied the opening of the tomb at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (Matthew 28:2). One solitary candle, the “Christ-light” is then placed back on the Tenebrae stand as all pray the conclusion of Morning Prayer and finally depart in silence.

The candle representing Christ is removed then restored to its place at the centre of the tenebrae stand. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.

For those who have never experienced Tenebrae, it will be a unique moment of transcendental prayer. For older Catholics, it may be a “trip down memory lane”!  In either case, Tenebrae is a liturgy which can assist in leading us all deeper into the Paschal mysteries.

View images from the 2022 Office of Tenebrae here.

The Office of Tenebrae will be held on Monday 3 April at 7.30pm at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta. All are welcome to attend.

Bernard Kirkpatrick KSS is the Director of Music at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta.


Read Daily
* indicates required