By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Tenebrae, the ancient Holy Week service that adorns the narrative of Jesus’ Passion with sacred music and soaring chants, drew more than 300 faithful from around the Trenton Diocese to Spring Lake’s St. Catharine Church on the Wednesday of Holy Week.
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There, they joined with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who for the second time in as many years, celebrated the Tenebrae in the Monmouth County landmark. He was accompanied by Diocesan priests and a celestial choir of Diocesan musicians and members of Westminister Choir College.
Tenebrae, which means darkness or shadows, is traditionally held in the evenings of Holy Week, particularly during the Triduum. It is meant to inspire and awaken a sense of awe and wonder at the great mysteries contained in Holy Week and Easter liturgies, according to the Diocesan Office of Worship which sponsored the event.
Church records date the liturgy to the fourth century and it had been a common Holy Week devotion but its use declined over time.
Bishop O’Connell was instrumental in re-instituting the service on a Diocesan level in 2016 as a different Holy Week prayer experience according to an article in The Monitor.
And indeed, throughout the 90-minute service, the moving Readings and the descent into darkness which are integral to the Tenebrae transfixed those seated amid the architectural and artistic splendor of a church commissioned more than 100 years ago by a grieving father in memory of a beloved child.
The gaze of one-and-all stayed focused on the large, 15-branch candelabra known as a “hearse” as one-by-one, the candles which represent the 12 Apostles and the three-days of darkness following Christ’s Death – were extinguished.
The reverent Readings and sacred music which wove through the ceremony conveyed the depth of humanity grieving the death of its Savior.
Only one candle – the Christ candle with its promise of salvation – would remain as the nave settled into near darkness. But in a profoundly poignant sequence, even that candle disappeared from view, hidden according to custom, behind the altar for a few moments of silence.
As the service swelled to conclusion, the remarkable crescendo of the strepitus – in this case a loud blast from the organ – sounded, indicating the Death of Jesus and the earthquake that followed. The haunting and once rarely heard “Miserere Mei, Deus,” – Have Mercy on Me, O God, by Gregorio Allegri served as a prelude for the return of the Christ Candle – symbolic of the Resurrection to come – to its place on the top of the candelabra.
Custom dictates that those who have attended a Tenebrae, depart the sacred place in silence. As the majority of those who attended headed out into the night, a number remained behind, moved by the prayers they had heard, to offer prayers of their own.
Many spent a few moments on and around the entrance way overlooking the lake which gives the town its name, reflecting on what they had witnessed and participated in.
Among them were Ellen and John Fudge, parishioners of St. Catharine – St. Margaret Parish, and their daughters, Anna, 13 and Emily, 11.
Throughout the Tenebrae, the girls, both students in St. Catharine School, seemed captivated by what they were witnessing. Emily, in fact, sometimes whispered to her father for his observations on what was taking place.
She and her father attended the service together last year and he said he made it a point to return with the whole family this year.
“We liked it so much, we couldn’t miss it,” said Fudge, who added that he relished the chance to hear Latin sung once again this year, “even though I don’t understand it. My mother would bring me to church as a child,” and the flow of the ancient words kindled warm memories of those days.
Attending again this year, this time with the whole family, “put me in the mood to prepare for Easter. It made me think of my Mom and Dad and the Holy Weeks I shared with them.”
Both of his daughters were taken with the music as was their mother, who came into the Church last year during the Easter Vigil.
She was especially moved by the soaring notes of the “Miserere” which, she said, “sounded like they were coming from the voice of an angel.”
Lauren Walters, music director in St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, stood near by as Ellen Fudge expressed her delight.
Walters, a soprano with the Schola or singing group specifically for church choristers that lent their gifts to this year’s Tenebrae, shared her joy in the fact that the service was so well attended and that it definitely seemed to have touched a chord with those who returned again this year.
The Tenebrae, she said, is “deeply rooted in Catholic tradition.”
“The fact that it is being restored and offered to a new generations of Catholics” is a hopeful sign that it will “take root” once again, and grow,” she said.
This was the first time Robert Jones, a member of St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, had attended a Tenebrae.
He shared that he was grateful Father Harold Cullen, his pastor, gave everyone a heads up about the service at Palm Sunday Masses.
“I found it to be very solemn and it offered a time for reflection,” and a good gateway, as he put it, to the Triduum.