St. James recreates Medieval service

By R.M. Campbell

Of all the rituals of the Roman Catholic church, one of the most mysterious and profound, and perhaps less known, must be its Tenebrae service traditionally said the last three days of Holy Week. St. James Cathedral held it Wednesday night with all due solemnity and dark eloquence.

The ambience of the church set the tone. As one entered, the lights were low and shadowy — dark actually: “Tenebrae” means “darkness” in Latin. There was a soft glow to the church including backlighting of the glass windows above the doors and the rich decor of the stained windows in the clerestory. There was a handful of candles principally six mounted high around the altar and 15 on a candelabra and a pair flanking the chair of the Very Reverend Michael G. Ryan, pastor of the cathedral, who presided. The musical forces were spare. They included the excellent singers of two of the church’s vocal ensembles, organist Joseph Adam and viola da gambist Margriet Tindemans. The forces in that large space were small but everything could be heard, and it had meaning.

The singing, chanting, praying and speaking were seamlessly coordinated, sounds going back and forth from the transept to the apse. The darkness appeared to make everything more of another world than this one. After the reading of each psalm one of the large candles was snuffed out. Slowly other lights were dimmed and eventually only 15 were left . They too, two by two, after the Benedictus Dominus was sung, were extinguished by servers leaving only the top one left. Then that was snuffed out, leaving the church in silence and complete darkness to commemorate the effect of the death of Christ. The only sound was that of clappers, which are used throughout the world in all sorts of rites and religious services as well as theater, The effect was haunting. At the very end, the candle at the top of the candelabra was relit to signify that Christ had risen. People left the church quietly.

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