the service of shadows

At a Tenebrae service,
a Good Friday service of shadows,
traditionally, twelve candles,
associated with the twelve disciples
all falling away,
are extinguished one by one,
until only the Christ candle is left burning.
Then it, too, is extinguished.

It occurred to me this year,
that I actually have no idea
what traditionally accompanies this process—
if there’s particular Scripture or music.
But years ago, I went through
each of the three synoptic gospels
looking for instances of people misunderstanding Jesus,
distorting his message and teaching,
rejecting him and what he stood for—
instances of anger, betrayal, and fear.

Sobering how many there are.

Then in the gathering darkness,
we alternate reading those texts
with extinguishing the candles.
The readings culminate
in readings taken from the passion of Jesus.

It is also our tradition, of course,
to have many more candles than twelve
lit at the beginning of the service.
So after the twelve disciples’ candles are out,
we affirm how easy it would be to leave it at that.
How easy to blame them
as if we would have done any different.

But how much more true it is
to include in confession at this point,
the many ways in which we participate in the extinguishing of light.
Oh, not the private I-shouldn’t-have-dones,
but the systemic taken-for-granteds of our culture
that are with any careful, prayerful consideration
antithetical to our faith—
and so pervasive in our culture—
so integral to it.

So I walk around the sanctuary,
and ask congregants to name sin.
And they do.
That unholy trio of
materialism, consumerism, and utilitarianism.
Lack of regard for others.
Lack of regard for creation.
Convenience, comfort, and ease.
Immediate gratification.

After each sin named, I blow out another candle—
in reminder that it didn’t just happen then—
the misunderstanding, the distortions,
the rejection, the anger, the betrayal.
It continues to happen now.

So it is only after all the candles have been extinguished
(the disciples’ and ours)—
when all the light but the Christ candle is out,
that we read of the death of Jesus,
and extinguish, finally, that one.

We know so very well, you see, what spreads darkness—
what extinguishes light.

But may we more than know.
May we confess.
May we repent.
May we commit to live differently
in the name of God.


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