The Liturgy of Tenebrae

Tenebrae (meaning 'darkness' or 'shadows') is the morning prayer of the church on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It involves extinguishing candles one by one as Christ goes through his passion.

This adaptation of the Liturgy of Tenebrae works well in schools and has an impact on pupils. It can be dramatic and different and provides a good alternative to Mass for ending the term before Easter.

Texts for Tenebrae are provided below. Please feel free to adapt and rewrite according to your school's needs. The prayers are written for secondary school pupils and may need rewriting for younger children.

Seven readings and the liturgy set out below with a large congregation has a running time of comfortably under 1-hour.

If you use this liturgy of Tenebrae, please do let us know how you got on, what you adapted, and, if possible, share any rewrites or ideas you used. This is how the resources on this website are developed for the benefit of all.
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Historical Note
Tenebrae was the celebration of the liturgical hours of Matins and Lauds on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (although often celebrated publically on the preceding evenings). With the 1955 revision of Holy Week, Tenebrae disappeared. Matins became the Office of Readings in the revision of the Liturgy of the Hours by the Second Vatican Council.

Notes on the celebration of Tenebrae in schools

If you wish to have a procession to begin the liturgy, a suitable hymn is needed. Alternatively, you could begin simply with the priest, or other presider, in place. Again, a hymn may gather the community together. But starting in silence is also effective and different from the usual liturgy.

If you have a procession, you may wish to bring up the seven lit candles and place them on the front of the altar. Or they can already be in place. It is suggested you use large candles.

The introduction is important. It could be read by one or several readers. Read slowly and reflectively. It is designed to focus attention and create calm.

After each reading, a pupil should come forward and extinguish one candle. This needs to be given some thought so it is done in a dignified and dramatic way (using a snuffer rather than blowing it out perhaps). It is also an idea to have all the lights on at the start of Tenebrae and then to put some off as each candle is extinguished until there are no lights on when the seventh candle is hidden.

By tradition, the seventh candle (representing Christ, light of the world) is not extinguished but is solemnly taken from its place and hidden (usually behind the altar). This should be done in silence and followed by silence. It is suggested there are no further prayers, hymns, or blessings. Pupils are dismissed in silence (and asked to keep silence until they are outside the church, or wherever) - if this is explained in the homily it can be very effective. Supervising staff need to be briefed so that they know how to dismiss pupils without speaking and are themselves silent and solemn.

It is traditional to pause after the words of the fifth reading "Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last." Again pupils need warning that this will happen and why.

The sixth reading is the dramatic portrait of the suffering servant from Isaiah. It is intended to provide a good lead into the homily or reflection which, it is suggested, reflects on the person of Jesus on the cross and our reactions to that.

A custom that developed for the liturgy of Tenebrae was the 'strepitus' - this was a loud noise made as the seventh candle was removed and hidden created by banging books on pews and sounding rattles and untuned percussion instruments. The 'strepitus' signifies the confusion and terror which accompanies the death of Christ and his burial. If you think you can pull it off with your pupils, it may be worth trying: maybe a sustained loud and discordant chord from the organ, or rattles and woodblocks sounded by selected pupils. Obviously this needs to work well - if it is likely to descend into laughter and farce it is best left out! But it can be effective, especially as it is followed by silence and dismissal in silence.

If you are producing a printed order of service, you may wish to include a powerful image at the end which pupils can look at as they wait to be dismissed.

There is a PowerPoint to accompany this adaptation of Tenebrae with moving clouds to accompany the introduction, an image for each reading, and a candle being extinguished for the end.

Liturgy of Tenebrae for schools

(Opening hymn)

(read slowly, inviting people into the silence)

‘Tenebrae’ means darkness or shadows.
As we come to the end of Lent,
we begin a journey into darkness to a place of deep shadows.
Today we accompany Jesus in his last hours.
We witness the cruelties and the suffering he endures.
We listen to the words of condemnation and ridicule.
In all this he is innocent.
He is the faithful servant of God,
doing his Father’s work;
bringing the gospel of love, peace and hope.
And so, in this liturgy, we are invited to walk solemnly and attentively with Jesus.
Better to know.
Better to understand.
Better to be his friend, his disciple, his witness.
Be still and know that God is here.

First Reading (Mtt 26:17-29 The Last Supper)
First candle extinguished (in silence)
Hymn or song (congregational or choir)
Prayer (stand)

Second Reading (Mtt 26:36-56 Jesus is betrayed and arrested)
Second candle extinguished (in silence)
Hymn or song (congregational or choir)
Prayer (stand)

Third Reading (Mk 15:1-5 Jesus before Pilate)
Third candle extinguished (in silence)
Hymn or song (congregational or choir)
Prayer (stand)

Fourth Reading (Mk 15:16-32 Jesus is crucified)
Fourth candle extinguished (in silence)
Hymn or song (congregational or choir)
Prayer (stand)

Fifth Reading (Mtt 27:45-54 Jesus dies on the cross)
Fifth candle extinguished (in silence)
Hymn or song (congregational or choir)
Prayer (stand)

Sixth Reading (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:5 The Suffering Servant)
Sixth candle extinguished (in silence)
Hymn or song (congregational or choir)
Prayer (stand)

Homily or Reflection

Seventh Reading (Mtt 27:62-66 Jesus is laid in the tomb)
Seventh candle is hidden (in silence or with the 'strepitus')

Depart in silence

Texts for Tenebrae
Texts for Tenebrae (MS Word version)
Texts for Tenebrae (PDF version)
Hymns for Tenebrae

Some hymns (such as Were You There and My Song Is Love Unknown) can be split with different verses being used after each reading. Do not worry about the words matching the reading - this is an old problem in liturgy - remember we know the whole story and are reading it dramatically so there is no problem with hymns that refer to other parts of the story.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
My song is love unknown
When I behold the wondrous cross
O sacred head ill-wounded
The Power of the Cross (Getty/Getty/Townend)
They hung him on a cross
By the cross which did to death
Jesus, the holy Lamb of God
From heaven you came (The Servant King)

PowerPoint to accompany Tenebrae
Tenebrae PowerPoint
Images to accompany the service of Tenebrae (using the introduction and seven readings described on this webpage).
Tenebrae (PowerPoint)
The Crucified Christ
Brad Ball (2010)
It Is Finished
Patricia Brintle (2009)
Stations of the Cross
Joan Brand-Landkamer (2009)
at St James' Cathedral, Seattle
Christ in his shroud
origin unknown
Jesus is laid in the tomb
origin unknown
The body of Jesus is laid in the tomb (1917)
Eric Gill (1882-1940)
Tate London

The deposition from the cross
origin unknown

The lamentation of the dead Christ (c.1478)
Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506)
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Image public domain
  Station XIV: Jesus is Laid in the Tomb
Ettore "Ted" Degrazia (1909-82)