April 2022

Tenebrae

It was such a haunting service that, after all these years, it lives with me still. Maundy Thursday, St. Louis, Missouri, 1985 or so, at a small, storefront church in Lafayette Square or Soulard, I could never easily tell the difference.

I was student pastor at a church that was located just blocks from Deaconess Hospital, just on the other side of the highway. No one had shown up for our service, which I was told would likely happen, since everyone in the congregation, all thirteen of them, were afraid of the neighborhood. It would be dark by the time we would be finished with the service and people in this church did not do things at the church after dark. They had warned me.

I was a seminarian on Maundy Thursday with nothing to do. I got into my car and drove around the neighborhood. I did not know exactly where I was, which is no surprise. If you ask my wife, I can get lost going around a block. As I drove, I paid attention to landmarks, seeing if I could find anything familiar. That was when I saw the little storefront church, lit up like it was Christmas instead of Holy Week.

On a whim, I parked and went in. I did not know anyone, what congregation this might be, nor any sense of theology, identity, denomination, or affiliation. I was welcomed like an old friend, though I may have been the only person there with “Caucasian” on my license. I felt out of place, but surprisingly at home.

The service began spontaneously. It was not on an hour or half-hour, and started with some melodic community singing, slow, mournful, sad, but spiritually alive.

There was a grand procession that danced its way up the makeshift aisle. As if on some secret cue, everyone was quiet, still standing, when the series of readings began. It felt comfortable to hear the same, familiar scriptures being read. I knew the Passion narrative from Luke’s Gospel.  After the third reading, I noticed that lights were being dimmed and candles extinguished. By the time Jesus was crucified, we were in total darkness. Even the large storefront windows had shades drawn and closed.

In those few moments, I heard about real pain. I heard about real suffering. I heard about the struggle of those who would associate themselves with a crucified would-be messiah. I felt the loss and the grief. Still in the darkness, a deep baritone sang “Were You There.”

I had learned about Tenebrae but had not felt it before that night. The light of the world was dimmed, diminished, darkened, destroyed. There was no hint of Resurrection, no promise of Easter. We rested in the tragedy of death. Enough light came on for us to leave in the darkness. This community knew something I did not. They taught me that night, and I shall forever be grateful.

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