Tenebrae

By Sarah Cornwell

A Reading from Psalm 55

1 Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.

2 Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace, because of my cares.

3 I am shaken by the noise of the enemy
and by the pressure of the wicked;

4 For they have cast an evil spell upon me
and are set against me in fury.

5 My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

6 Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me.

7 And I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.

8 I would flee to a far-off place
and make my lodging in the wilderness.

9 I would hasten to escape
from the stormy wind and tempest.”

10 Swallow them up, O Lord;
confound their speech;
for I have seen violence and strife in the city.
11 Day and night the watchmen make their rounds
upon her walls,
but trouble and misery are in the midst of her.

12 There is corruption at her heart;
her streets are never free of oppression and deceit.

13 For had it been an adversary who taunted me,
then I could have borne it;
or had it been an enemy who vaunted himself against me,
then I could have hidden from him.

14 But it was you, a man after my own heart,
my companion, my own familiar friend.

15 We took sweet counsel together,
and walked with the throng in the house of God.

16 Let death come upon them suddenly;
let them go down alive into the grave;
for wickedness is in their dwellings, in their very midst.

17 But I will call upon God,
and the Lord will deliver me.

18 In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday,
I will complain and lament,
and he will hear my voice.

19 He will bring me safely back from the battle waged against me;
for there are many who fight me.

20 God, who is enthroned of old, will hear me and bring them down;
they never change; they do not fear God.

21 My companion stretched forth his hand against his comrade;
he has broken his covenant.
22 His speech is softer than butter,
but war is in his heart.

23 His words are smoother than oil,
but they are drawn swords.

24 Cast your burden upon the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous stumble.

25 For you will bring the bloodthirsty and deceitful
down to the pit of destruction, O God.

26 They shall not live out half their days,
but I will put my trust in you.

Meditation

This evening, a number of Episcopal churches will offer a Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness” and it marks the eve of the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The service is haunting, unnerving even in its quiet simplicity. Verses from Lamentations and the Psalms are read, and gradually, the light is extinguished until only a single candle, symbolizing Christ, remains. In the deathly quiet, the candle is taken away, hidden, and in the darkness there is a terrible noise. It’s loud and jarring. It rattles the bones and frays the nerves. The noise symbolizes the earthquake which shook this world to its core when Christ died on the cross. Following this, the hidden candle is returned and all depart as shadows in the silence.

Throughout the service, the extinguishing light is arresting. Those moments of total darkness when the single candle is hidden and a hideous noise rips through the space is truly terrifying. Though the psalm for this Wednesday morning is not included in the service, its opening lines offer appropriate preparation for the experience. The psalmist pleads with God not to hide himself away. Without God, there is no peace within us. The noise of the enemy shakes us, our heart quakes, and we are seized by the terror of death. To sit for a few moments in the heart of darkness and experience the world without the light of Christ, is to experience the horror — the horror — of that intolerable place.

Let us read Psalm 55 today and take to heart that plea for God not to hide himself from us. Then, this evening, attend a Tenebrae service if it is possible to do so. It will help prepare us for what is to come in the next three days.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have six children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer

Today we pray for:

St. Francis Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Diocese of Kumi – The Church of the Province of Uganda

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