A Good Friday Tenebrae service is my favorite of the church year. It’s an ancient tradition which has taken different shapes but consistently features the extinguishing of candles throughout the course of the service, usually ending in full darkness and silence. It’s not a tradition I grew up with, however, so I remember distinctly the first time I sat in a Tenebrae service, visiting a friend for Easter weekend. As both the lights and the mood disappeared further into darkness, and the noise of appointments and travel and roasts in the oven faded slowly in the lingering echo of the Scriptures, I did not merely remember that Good Friday historical moment, I felt it. I felt, for maybe the first time, the sorrow-weight and glory-weight of those hours on the cross. I felt that it was right to bear it tonight.
As I sat there, throats cleared and chairs squeaked until finally, after only an anxious minute or two, the first few people got up to leave, and a relieved multitude followed quickly. Within a few minutes more, there were only a handful of us left. I sat there wondering how long they would let me stay; let me sit in this silence that shut out all else that was less important in life, which of course was everything. I wanted to be with Christ in that moment just a little longer. I probably could’ve out-lingered the churches’ welcome and the insubordinate part of me smiled a little wondering what the altercation of asking someone to leave a time of reflecting on the passion of the Lord might look like. But of course that wasn’t the point, as the reality of our lives is that we must carry the passion of the Lord out, finding out what remembrance means in the noise, movement, brokenness, and joy of everyday life with everyday sinners and saints.
But for one night, it’s good to linger a bit. We don’t naturally do so, not merely because of the silence, but because in our tension-smoothing culture we are much more comfortable focusing on the morning of Easter. We are more comfortable with Christ triumphant, seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. It is good and right to rejoice that we live always in the sunrise of Easter, but we miss an unspeakable wonder when we rush through the night that allowed for that sunrise. It is also good and right to remember that Christ on the cross, broken and bleeding, was even in that very moment triumphant, completing the most intimate and ultimate intercession for us. And that of course is why we have Lent and Holy Week and Good Friday services; this season of confession and brokenness; so that we remember.
The modern Protestant adoption of Tenebrae services has usually shifted from reading the traditional Psalms of the Catholic hours to the reading of Scripture passages that specifically recount the passion of Christ. At times, even more specifically, the service focuses just on the seven statements of Christ from the cross that the Gospel writers give us. I don’t know all the history behind that shift, but I wonder if a part of it has to do with lingering. In the sweeping arch of Scripture, the crucifixion narratives are so relatively short, yet they are the story’s defining moment. How can these words of Christ draw us into further understanding of that moment? What do they show us about His heart?
These are the questions I have found myself lingering in during this Lenten season. Several weeks ago I first listened to a new song by Andrew Peterson called Last Words (Tenebrae). The song consists solely of these seven last statements of the cross, building on top of each other like a round, then slowly fading out again in the style of Tenebrae. It is simple and haunting and moved me to tears. There was something that caught me in all those words in one place, played on top of each other as if capturing one extended moment; something about the unfathomable relational depth of the heart of Christ. In a year when Advent struck me anew with the powerful humanity of the Incarnation, this seemed like an appropriate following meditation for Lent, though I did not seek it out. I found myself singing phrases of the song over and over again as I went about my day, lingering not only in their theological significance, but also in what they have to show us about the core of being human. For if greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends, Christ in those moments on the Cross demonstrated not only the perfection of Divine love, but also the fullness of human love, wedded in one as only He could do. I am a lover of words, and if everything Christ did and said was intentional, why these words? What do they say about His love? Why did they deserve his labored breath?
Out of these questions, then, came reflections. Not answers or treatises or complete statements of theological significance, but a few captured thoughts of how my heart is being shaped from lingering with each of these last words of Christ. Reflections that contain a little bit of my repentance and wonder and hope from glimpsing how these seven words show us the compassion, grace, provision, need, pain, authority, and submission of the relational heart of Christ in those last moments.
I’ll share these reflections one a day through this Holy Week, and pray that what may be few, faltering words will be used to draw us further in wonder and praise of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” (Heb 12:2-3)
For consider Him. Linger with me?