This service tonight continues the long prayer which began on Palm or Passion Sunday. The prayer of Holy Week is a journey that follows the liturgical pattern formed by our Christian ancestors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
It is reconstructed mythical history. It weaves meditations on the Hebrew Scriptures with remembrances of Jesus. What is ‘historical’, in our modern sense of understanding that word, is minimal. At the very least we know that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. As the Nicene Creed puts it: ‘He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.’ And, apart from that there is little else that is certain.
The purpose of what liturgically we call the Passion Narrative though is not to recite ‘what actually happened’ as if ‘what actually happened’ is bedrock for our faith. Rather this long meditation on the re-membering of Jesus is a prayer for the community that carries on his name. That’s us! In the prayer, in our praying, we walk with Jesus to the cross.
So the Palm Sunday story of being acclaimed and then, failing to meet expectations, vilified, is not only Jesus’ story, not only the story of the story-tellers decades later, but our story. We are the cheering and then condemning crowd. We too are Jesus both joyfully heralded, misunderstood, and rejected.
Likewise, the Wednesday story of the expensive gift being poured out over the feet of Jesus by a woman who shouldn’t be touching him. We are all three characters: we are the woman crying, washing and drying, pouring herself out. We are the passive Jesus receiving the ointment, the blessing of another’s love. And we are the disciples who condemn the wastefulness, or are these just words disguising our envy?
Likewise the tale tonight of a Last Supper – a last communion – with Judas who desperately wants Jesus to be who he is not, and taking actions for which he cannot later forgive himself. How often have we the Church wanted Jesus to be the fulfilment of our projections? How often have we struggled to forgive ourselves?
One last time this evening we eat with Jesus before we are rent apart by forces beyond our control. Oh, how we long for someone to be in control. Jesus please? God please? Won’t anyone stop this travesty, this titanic sinking of our hopes and dreams?
Tonight begins the Tenebrae. Tenebrae is the Latin word for darkness. Tonight, and for what our tradition calls the Three Great Days, the Paschal Triduum, we stand abandoned and forsaken in a valley between two cliffs. One cliff represents the belief that all will be well, and ‘all manner of things will be well’. It is a cliff of hope. And the other cliff represents that there is no God. It is a cliff denying any spiritual reality or meaning.
We are in the shadowlands between these two cliffs, as we follow the path of the one who cried ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ It is the path of Christians for centuries who have cried, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ We feel forsaken.
Tenebrae is an old liturgy for Maundy Thursday or God’s Friday evening. It is very foreign for those who think worship should always be uplifting or happy. There is no hope offered in this service, no resurrection, no benediction, no coffee afterwards, no assurance that we will scale the ‘all will be well’ cliff. It is a service of the dark valley of the shadow of death. It recreates – by reading the old texts our ancestors created for, I would suggest, precisely this purpose – the betrayal, abandonment and agony of the way of the cross.
The service is left unfinished because in a sense the service isn’t over until Easter morning.
There are seven readings, represented by seven candles. At the end of each reading a candle is extinguished – and so the church becomes darker and darker. Darkness envelops us.
Only one candle at the end remains. It symbolizes ‘maybe?’. It symbolizes, despite the deepest darkness, while we are alive there is hope.