The Sacred Triduum: Tenebrae and the Hours

Before I start writing about the special aspects of the Divine Office during the Triduum, it would probably be helpful to continue a little bit in the history of the Triduum, and provide a few comparative observations of the ancient Roman Office and the Anglican Daily Office.


A little more history

The majority norm of the pre-Reformation Western liturgy can be understood to derive from two main sources: the Roman and Monastic (Benedictine) rites. There was a great diversity of regional differences, with rites specific to different religious orders, but when the actual forms are looked at from a broad view they are all of the same family. Just like how the liturgical variances between the Greek and Slavic traditions in the Orthodox are nevertheless understood to be of the same Byzantine Rite, the liturgical diversities of the medieval Latin West shouldn’t be over-exaggerated. It’s only rites like the Mozarabic and Ambrosian that are truly distinct enough to be set apart in different categories, and for many centuries they have only been preserved in single dioceses.

The Roman and the Monastic only truly differ in their celebration of the Divine Office, which refer to the rule of prayer that centre around the weekly recitation of the Psalms. The Monastic Office, which is based on the Psalter scheme created by St. Benedict of Nursia, was itself built off of the ancient Roman cursus which was kept nearly unchanged until 1911 when Pope Pius X unilaterally imposed a rather shockingly revised (read: mutilated) Psalter upon the Roman Church. St. Benedict and his monastic disciples observed the celebration of the Mass in the same manner as the Roman Rite, and all the other monastic orders followed similarly, with divergences being, for the most part, relatively minor. The mendicant orders adopted the Roman Rite in some form, with the Franciscan friars in particular adopting the customs of the city of Rome since their beginnings.

The unique rites of the Sacred Triduum are distinctively Roman in origin, with the form we know reaching back to at least the 9th century in extant documents (this 9th century antiphonary is the oldest extant Roman antiphonary we have). The monastics had no parallels, and simply adopted the Roman customs here. The antiquity of the Sacred Triduum is attested by the fact that it was already known and revered in the time of St. Benedict (480-547 AD). This Roman provenance explains why the Monastic Office abruptly adopts a Roman form of the Hours for the Triduum, despite it not cohering with the regular form of the Monastic Breviary. When the Cistercians reformed the Monastic Office according to a strict and literalistic adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict in their restorationist zeal, they omitted the special rites of the Triduum and turned the three days into rather simple ferias (“ordinary days”). They were roundly criticized for this, and the Triduum was eventually restored in the Cistercian books.

A principle we find in the ancient Western liturgies is that the observance of the most solemn and penitential liturgies were generally preserved from newer developments, and consequently such offices retained distinctive characteristics from antiquity that were lost elsewhere. As such, the Divine Office of the Sacred Triduum, like the Office of the Dead, are not only the sparsest forms of the Office but also the most ancient. They were, and are, liturgical “living fossils”.


A short comparison of the ancient Office and the Anglican Office

The form and content of the Anglican Daily Office is based upon the ancient Roman Office in a highly simplified manner. Whereas the ancient Western Offices (both Roman and Monastic) comprise of eight Hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline), Cranmer’s Daily Office only has two: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. A colloquial custom has arose in Anglicanism in referring to MP and EP, especially when sung in a choral setting, as “Matins” and “Evensong”, but Morning Prayer is too distinct from ancient Matins for this reference to be really intelligible. Nevertheless, when one compares the ordinary (the regular, largely unchanging “skeleton” of the Hours) of the Roman Office and the Anglican Office, one can see that Morning Prayer adapts elements of Matins and Lauds, and Evening Prayer elements of Vespers and Compline. Since the 20th Century, revisions of the Prayer Book have attempted to restore elements of these eight Hours in different ways, but not always coherently. In any case, regardless of revisions Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer continue to be the pillars of the Anglican Daily Office in such a way that the “restored” Little Hours (in the form of Midday Prayer) or Compline (which in the Canadian 1962 is almost a straight translation of the ancient Roman Compline) can be easily dispensed with. One can read the full lectionary (scriptural lessons) and Psalter as laid out in the Prayer Books without them.

For our purposes here, remembering the relation of Morning Prayer with Matins and Lauds, and Evening Prayer with Vespers and Compline will suffice.


The Hours of the Sacred Triduum

The Office of the Sacred Triduum is noticeable for its sparseness at all the Hours. On all three days no hymns are sung, and the doxology (“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost…”) is not said at the end of Psalms and Canticles as it customarily is on other days. The book-ending opening versicles (“O God, make speed to save me; O Lord make haste to help me…”) and the closing versicles (“Let us bless the lord. Thanks be to God…”) are not said. There are no chapters (short, thematic scriptural quotations). The Martyrology is not read at Prime. With the exception of Tenebrae (the special order of Matins and Lauds) all the Hours are recited monotone. These distinctive elements begin with the Tenebrae of Maundy Thursday, and end on None of Holy Saturday. The Vespers of Holy Saturday, as the First Vespers of Easter, marks the liturgical beginning of the Eastertide Office and the triumphal return of festal elements that had been progressively suppressed since the First Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday, nine weeks earlier.

On all three days of the Triduum Vespers is sung immediately after Mass, and indeed is an organic whole with the Mass. This is especially the case on Holy Saturday, where Vespers actually serves as the proper conclusion to the Mass.



As mentioned once above, Tenebrae refers to the unique service of Matins and Lauds during the Sacred Triduum. Tenebrae was customarily sung the evening prior. So the Tenebrae of Maundy Thursday was said on Wednesday evening, and the Tenebrae of Good Friday on the evening of Maundy Thursday, etc. The reason for this has to do with the way the old Lenten disciplines influenced liturgical celebrations in the past. The anticipation of the liturgies to earlier times was a pastoral accommodation to the faithful to allow them to break their fast earlier in the day. It was probably also a pastoral accommodation for the sake of the altar party, choir, and other hands who helped in all the special preparations and liturgical performances of the Triduum (which, as I shall try to show through this series, involves a lot of work from everyone involved).

There is some debate over whether the celebration of Matins and Lauds on the prior evening was liturgically proper, along with the way it influenced the times of the liturgies of the Triduum. This continues to be a question of some contention within the Roman Church today, as it was one of the central element of the 20th century reforms of Holy Week that occurred. While I have no dog in this race, it is at least helpful to know, as it is often ignored or forgotten, that historically the Roman Rite almost always prayed Matins and Lauds together. This was the case all the way until the breviary reforms of Pope Pius X. Thus Lauds wasn’t traditionally actually prayed in the morning at daybreak in the Roman Rite, and therefore the anticipation of Tenebrae wasn’t the dislocation of a morning office to the evening but a much less extreme movement of a mid-night office to the beginning of the dark.

In any case, Tenebrae was historically done in the evening, which contributes to the singularly most striking element of Tenebrae: the hearse.


As you can see in this picture, the Tenebrae hearse is a triangular structure that holds fifteen candles, and this is itself mounted on a rod. This hearse is placed in the sanctuary on the Epistle side. Before the service starts a server will light the fifteen candles of the hearse, and all six candles on the altar. The rubrics specify that all the candles are to be of unbleached wax (but Adrian Fortescue opines that, although there is no authority for using anything else, “the matter is not important and may tolerate some slight variety of local custom”). According to Fortescue’s The Ceremonies of The Roman Rite Described, the whole choir is to be in regular choir dress (cassock and surplice, unless one is a religious; rochets for bishops and canons). There is explicit instruction for copes not to be worn, even by the celebrant. The opening procession to the choir occurs in silence.

The altar should be furnished differently according to the day. On Wednesday evening the altar cross should be veiled in purple, as it has been since Passion Sunday, and the altar frontal should be purple. On Thursday evening the altar cross should be veiled in black, and the altar bare. On Friday evening the the altar cross should be unveiled, and the altar bare. The reason for these differences will become apparent as I explain more elements of the Triduum through this week.

Matins of the Triduum consists of three nocturnes, as on great feasts and Sundays. Each nocturne consists of three psalms with their antiphons, and three readings. The first nocturne of Maundy Thursday is particularly striking to me, as it consists of the acrostic that opens the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It was traditionally sung to a special melody.  The first nocturnes of the next two days continue to read through Lamentations. The second nocturnes of the Triduum consist of selections from St. Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms. The third nocturnes consist of readings from the Pauline Epistles.

Lauds of the Triduum consist of five psalms with their antiphons, a versicle, and the Benedictus with its antiphon.

During the course of Tenebrae, the candles on the hearse and altar are put out. At the conclusion of each psalm, from the first psalm of Matins to the last psalm of Lauds, a single candle is extinguished from the bottom of the triangle. After the final psalm of Lauds the uppermost candle will remain lit, representing the inextinguishable light that is Christ. While the Benedictus is sung the six altar candles are extinguished, along with all the other lights of the church. After the server has extinguished the candles on the altar, he takes the last candle on the hearse and first places it upon the altar as a symbol of the Passion and the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death. The server then carries the candle to the Epistle side of the altar, facing the Gospel side.

After the antiphon of the Benedictus is repeated the antiphon Christus factus est is sung. This antiphon is progressively expanded over the three days until it reaches it full form on the Tenebrae of Holy Saturday. It goes as follows:

Maundy Thursday: “Christ, for our sake, became obedient unto death.”
Good Friday: “Christ, for our sake, became obedient unto death. Even the death of the Cross.”
Holy Saturday: “Christ, for our sake, became obedient unto death. Even the death of the Cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a Name which is above every name.”

When this antiphon begins to be sung everyone kneels. The server who carried the last candle to the Epistle side hides the candle behind the altar so that its light cannot be seen, and kneels close to it. After the antiphon is sung the Lord’s Prayer is said silently, and Psalm 50 (51) is recited monotone in a low voice. With the conclusion of Psalm 50 (51) the celebrant alone says:

Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross.”

The celebrant then concludes the collect silently: “Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”

When the celebrant has concluded this prayer the master of ceremonies strikes the choir stall to make a sound, and everyone in the choir follows in making a clatter of noise. This ruckus is made as a symbol of creation’s horror and confusion at the death of God, their Creator. It is perhaps especially a representation of the earthquake that followed Christ’s death on the Cross. But as the ruckus continues the server retrieves the hidden candle from behind the altar and holds it up so that all can see its light. When the candle is raised the choir immediately cease their ruckus. They then leave the church in silence as they did in their entry. The server takes the candle with him to the sacristy.

Just as it began solemnly without fanfare, thus Tenebrae ends in stark silence. All leave the darkened church into the night, awaiting the Resurrection.


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