Serving in the Shadows: Tenebrae from an Acolyte’s Perspective


 I may have discovered the best kept secret about serving as an acolyte at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It was the Wednesday before Easter, when I was asked to serve as an acolyte during the Tenebrae service, which was scheduled to take place in a few short hours. I agreed, even though it meant I had to cancel other plans. I’m glad I did because I received quite a treat.  I showed up at the appointed time and rehearsed with the vergers and acolytes.

During this beautiful service of Tenebrae, which means “shadows” or “darkness” in Latin, the gentlemen of the choir sing in a candlelit cathedral, while the vergers and acolytes extinguish the candles one by one. The service of darkness is a moving and meditative filled with Gregorian chant and readings.

The service bulletin said Tenebrae dates back to medieval times and provides an extended meditation on the events in the life of Jesus Christ between the last supper and the resurrection.

 Apart from the singing and reading, the most conspicuous feature of this service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until just a single is hidden from view.

The main candles are situated in an apex-shaped wooden stand that is located right behind the altar. At a critical point toward the end of the service, an acolyte (this year, yours truly) takes the final candle out of its perch and slowly slides down the back of the wooden stand behind the altar, hiding the candle behind it. The candle represents the light of Christ, which was hidden for three days prior to rising again.

There I crouched behind the altar, in the center of the choir, on the floor.

The service bulletin explains that the “musical base of the services is ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah,’ scored for unaccompanied male voices, altos, tenors and basses, by Thomas Tallis,” the composer for the court of King Henry VIII and his successors. “This work is thought to date from 1585 and is regarded as probably Tallis’ final composition. A highly respected dramatic piece, it contains wonderful melodies, finely wrought counterpoint and surprising dissonances and cross relations. For its wealth of invention and expressive intensity, it is unique not only in Tallis’ repertoire, but in English Renaissance music as a whole.

 As I crouched in almost complete darkness, I found myself in a prime location for listening. Cascading waterfalls of beautiful counterpoint washed over me in that holy moment, transporting me to transcendent bliss. The five-part choir of male voices flowing over me in the darkness is an experience that defined my Easter. As I struggle with the beliefs of my childhood about Jesus being raised from the dead, and my own journey to be aware of the parts of myself that are in need of resurrection, I accepted as a free gift from God, the melancholic, beautiful voices in the darkness.

 All too soon it was over and I was slowly sliding back to an upright position where I reset the candle in the apex, representing Christ’s resurrection. We exited the Cathedral guided only by the light of that candle.

 Now that’s a good day as an acolyte.

Hannah Wilder

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