Sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
Tenebrae – A Service of Shadows
The Tuesday of Holy Week
“In the beginning was the Word. And the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing has come into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
So ended the Eucharist at Midnight on Christmas Night. Possibly the most famous of all the biblical texts, words of course from the first Chapter of St John’s Gospel. Here is light. This is who the light is, and this is what has happened. Light has come into the world, and it is not defeated.
St John, writer of certainly the strangest of the four Gospels to make the final cut and get included in the canonical scriptures, is fairly interested, one might even say preoccupied, with light. He is at one and the same time confident about the light – its reality, its personality, its enduring power. The darkness did not overcome it - but at the same time he is also very aware of the darkness. Those of us who were at the Eucharist this morning will have heard other words of St John, apt for the Tuesday of Holy Week: “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, that the darkness may not overcome you.”
Tonight is a Service of Tenebrae – the word translates best either as darkness, or shadows. This service properly takes place on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings of Holy Week, for the readings, psalms and responsories are those appointed for Matins on the final three days of holy week – the Triduum, as it is known, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It is a service of darkness, a service of shadows.
Holy Week gets very dark indeed. Holy Week, as bit by bit more and more is stripped away not only from our worship but also from our lives, brings us hard up against the reality of those lives, and against the reality also of God’s life, and we feel the disconnect. We’re supposed to. Holy Week is meant to hurt. Not in a kind of self-obsessed, self-pitying way, but more like the way in which we hurt when we realise that we have failed someone, that we have let them down, that we have fallen short of being the person that we are supposed to be.
More words of St John: “This is the judgement: that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness more than light, because their deeds were evil.”
We need not look far to recognise the reality of this – the truth of John’s words. We cast our eyes only a little way around our own lives and the way in which we conduct ourselves in relation to our own better angels, as well as to God and to each other to notice the cracks, the falsehoods, the weasel words which mask the reality, and then we broaden our gaze and we see a society heavy with selfishness and bloated with greed, and lurching with corruption and delusion, and then we broaden our gaze again to see the world at war, and the helpless faces of the innocents caught up in the midst of unspeakable cruelty which they did not choose and from which they cannot escape.
This is the judgment – that light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
And striding, and then walking more slowly, and then, still purposefully, stumbling through and into the heart of this gathering darkness comes Christ. The light, surrounded by the darkness, its talons scratching at his body, its seductive power tempting him to give up and go home and let the world just sink beneath the waves. And still he walks, towards the hill, towards the place where the darkness will win.
And this is really important. For the Cross to work, for victory to happen in the way in which it does the darkness really does have to win, for a time. Jesus really has to die. No conjuring trick with bones here. This is the place and the time when you and I and the human family kill our God. And the Father turns his face away.
There are some versions of Tenebrae where the final candle stays on the hearse – we call it a hearse because this is a service all about death. The final candle stays on the hearse, burning. It never disappears. Not here. In the most ancient versions of this service, as tonight, the last candle, eventually, disappears. The darkness wins. Watch, this evening. Watch the candles, and see the last one vanish. That is the moment when, as the shadows close across the sun and the voices of the crowd, at the height of their betrayal and disillusionment, when Pilate desperately trying to save the people from themselves asks, “are you really going to do this, are you really going to crucify your King”, cry out those chilling words of self-condemnation: “we have no King but Ceasar”. This is the moment where evil and darkness and cynicism and selfishness do their worst, and the lamp is extinguished and Christ pitches forwards from the Cross and into the abyss. The candle vanishes.
But in the darkness the work goes on. What extraordinary things happen in the darkness, unseen by us as we cast about trying to understand what we have just done. The holiness deep within us, breathed into us on the day of creation still tugs us somehow upwards, higher, as the voice of our creator calls to us in the darkness as he harrows hell and confounds the shadowy and counterfeit powers of the Evil One, until with an earthquake, and the slamming open of the prison door, we emerge into the light.