Reflection on a Service of Darkness
I was seven years old that spring and I remember that I had been thinking a lot about Easter, as the weeks of Lent embraced the coming of a North Carolina spring. Winter had been bad that year, resulting in uncommon missed days of school and even more uncommon Saturday make-up days. I was ready for warm breezes and romps in the woods behind the church cemetery, which was next door to the parsonage, my family’s home.
Spring has always been amazing to me with new life all around, but I remember thinking that it wasn’t coming soon enough for me that year and, at night as I was falling asleep I would think about the Easter celebration from the year before and the church filled with flowers—traditional Easter lilies as well as the flowers from the yards of church goers and even the wild ladies slippers that were found in the woods.
Maybe it was the first time that I really paid attention to what was going on through Lent and Holy Week and Easter, but I remember that year in particular because it was the first time that the drama of Holy Week settled into my soul. And so, with my family, I moved through the Palm Sunday excitement and into the drama of Holy Week, with the anticipation of the coming resurrection morning and the colors and sights and sounds that I was dreaming that year.
Suddenly, it was Good Friday. A new service was planned at church—a Tenabrae service—a service of darkness. The word “tenabrae” is from the Latin, which means darkness. The service is designed to gradually dim the church from full light to pitch darkness, creating drama and helping the congregation to think about how the world would be in darkness without the light of Christ.
That evening, from the beginning of the service, I was spellbound. I had never been afraid of the dark, but, as a child, I was not comfortable with it either. The words of scripture, telling the drama of the crucifixion seemed to settle in my soul in a different way and I just knew that if I moved the spell, the drama would be broken.
I watched my father, the pastor throughout the service. There was something different about him. When the service reached the part when the Christ candle is to be extinguished I saw my father hesitate and then simply pick up the candle and take it from the room. When he returned, he returned without the light and all was dark and silent.
I could feel that moment in the pit of my stomach. I had never felt that way in church before. I wasn’t certain if I wanted to rush out of the church door or stay to see what else happened.
The scripture was read about the moment that Jesus died and was buried. For what seemed like a long time everything was dark and still and silent. Then, in the darkness, a loud noise broke the spell of the silence and I remember a gasp coming from my mouth and my mother putting her hand on my arm to reassure me.
I was afraid. I was startled. I was worried.
And then, in silence everyone left.
What had happened? Why were we in such darkness? Where was the light?
That night I couldn’t sleep, the questions kept circling in my mind. All the next day I kept remembering that moment of fear. The colors and sights and sounds of Easter that I had been thinking about for weeks didn’t matter. I needed to understand the service from the night before.
I kept playing the scene over and over in my mind, like a movie that wouldn’t stop, but kept going back to that moment when the loud noise let me know that Jesus had died and I was afraid.
Decades have passed since I first experienced that Tenabrae service. This year, I find that am playing over and over again, that scene from my childhood when the loud noise, the silence and darkness that settled in the pit of my stomach, caused fear to rise up in me and the darkness shadowed all of life. Yet, this year, the silence and darkness are represented by the shadows of this world, where violence and fear are everywhere.
Last week, the world saw pictures of innocent people whose lives were wiped out by chemicals and my soul cried out. We shot missiles. My soul cried out. Friday, in Sweden, another attack occurred as a truck drove into a department store, killing a number of people and injuring others. My soul cried out. On Palm Sunday, our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters were attacked as they celebrated the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. My soul cried out.
Every day, no matter where in the world, people are in terror, feeling terror for who they are, how they live, what color their skin might be, who their ancestors might have been, because they have no homes, no country, no place to lay their heads, and so many other reasons that make no sense to me. And my soul cries out. No part of our world is exempt from the darkness that we are experiencing.
Are we in a perpetual Good Friday?
When I think about that question, I think about the words of Jesus that come to us from the Gospel of Luke: Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31). Or from the Gospel of Matthew: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matt. 5:44). Jesus is clear that whenever we act in a loving manner, we are serving him—feeding him, clothing him, visiting him, healing him (Matt. 25).
These are clear words from Jesus about how we should act, how we should live, how we should love. These are Easter words!
Sometimes I wonder if the world prefers Good Friday to Easter. It seems that we continue with the violence of Good Friday instead of embracing the peace and love and grace of Easter morning. It seems that we prefer the shadows of darkness and death than the light of resurrection. Why? It is something that I continue to ponder, as a child and as an adult.
Late on that Saturday afternoon of the year I was seven, I watched from the window in our dining room as people went in and out of the church doors, with their arms full. They were bringing in flowers to decorate the church and proclaim the resurrection of Christ, the victory of life over death, the victory of light over darkness. There were traditional Easter lilies, flowers from their gardens, and possibly a blossom or two from the pink lady slippers found in the woods.
I remember the sadness and fear that had gripped me after the Good Friday service seemed to disappear as I saw my favorite colors of spring flowers made ready for an Easter celebration. I knew in my soul that darkness and fear couldn’t last when the light of Christ is held forth.
Even this year, as my soul cries out with the violence of our world, I know in my soul that darkness and fear cannot last when the light of Christ is held forth, when the people who follow Christ see his face in each person they meet and love all the world with abandon.
May the shadows of Good Friday surround us and remind us that the shadows will not remain as long as our lips and our lives proclaim the risen Christ and his love and grace for all people.