A View from the Sacristy: Tenebrae Hearse

April 1, 2015 Comments Off on A View from the Sacristy: Tenebrae Hearse

In the St. Luke’s Sacristy, there are many liturgical items that when seen upon first glance, you’re not quite sure what they’re for. One example is our hearse, a triangular-shaped candelabra tucked up into the back of the loft. The word hearse comes from the French herse, from the Latin herpex, which means harrow. A harrow was a triangular-shaped, wooden-framed, Medieval farming implement with teeth, which was dragged over plowed lands to break up clods, remove weeds, and cover seeds after planting. The word harrow itself means to “cause distress to” or “break up and level.” A much-loved icon called “The Harrowing of Hell, is named so, according to Christian theology, because it was where Christ descended between his death and resurrection, and while there, broke open the gates of Hell, allowing the souls of the faithful to ascend to Heaven.

We get our modern association with the candelabra hearse through the Medieval usage of the funeral hearse, which was made out of a wooden or metal framework, and used both to support the funeral pall over the coffin (as well as hold numerous candles placed over it) or a corpse before burial. The framework included prickets (spikes to hold burning tapers), and owing to the resemblance of a farming harrow, was called a hearse. Later on, the word hearse was applied not only to the construction that covered the coffin, but to any receptacle in which the coffin was placed. The triangle itself is also representative of the Holy Trinity.

Tenebrae hearse, St. Luke’s Sacristy

Tenebrae hearse, St. Luke’s Sacristy

The candelabra hearse features prominently in the Office of Tenebrae. The word Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows”, but can also be translated into “night” or “death.” Tenebrae is marked by sung Antiphons and Readings from the Book of Lamentations, along with the gradual extinguishing of candles and interior lights, until a single candle (symbolic of Christ) remains. Towards the end, the remaining candle is removed and is hidden from view, falsely assuming victory by the forces of Satan. At the very end, a strepitus or loud noise is made, symbolizing the earthquake at the time of the resurrection. The hidden candle is then restored to its place and participants depart in contemplative silence.

St. Luke’s formerly held the full Office of Tenebrae on Good Friday, which contained 75 to 85 minutes of non-stop singing from our professional choir. The prolonged burden of singing, along with low attendance prompted the church to channel its energy and resources elsewhere, and it was discontinued after three years.

Tenebrae is deeply moving, and it’s become integral to my full celebration of Holy Week. It calls me to that place where I begin my Lenten journey with Christ towards the cross—our cross. I love symbolism and oddly, the Tenebrae hearse speaks to that part of my soul. Just as a modern funeral hearse carries our loved ones towards their graves, the Tenebrae hearse carries Christ towards His tomb. But His ending is different. And because of His, so is ours.

Some think it’s sad that we no longer hold Tenebrae, but I love that it gives me permission from my obligations of cleaning, rehearsing, and preparing, so that I can find beauty and sacredness in my time of inner reflection. And if you need permission or a “nudge”, several candidates and sponsors of the 2015 Formation Class are attending Tenebrae this Wednesday, April 1, 5.30pm, at St. Thomas Church on 5th Avenue. We invite the entire St. Luke’s community to come experience it with us.

– T.J. Houlihan

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