Palm Sunday: Darkness (for now)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

In most years, during Holy Week at Holy Trinity, usually on Wednesday, we offer a service called Tenebrae. “Tenebrae” comes from the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness.” Through the service of prayers, reading, and music, candles are gradually extinguished. Light decreases until the space is total darkness. And then, by tradition, there’s a loud noise. The “strepitus,” or great noise, is a clang, a bash, a rumble that represents several things related to the crucifixion—the disciples running out of the Garden of Gethsemane, the tearing of the Temple curtain in Jerusalem, and the earthquake reported in the Gospel of Matthew.

After noise, there in the dark, and there is only silence.

But the service of Tenebrae doesn’t end with the dark silence. After a time, a small light appears—usually a single, flickering flame of a candle. Sometimes it’s the last candle of those extinguished earlier and instead of being put out, it has simple been hidden behind the altar. This single, small light represents the light of Christ—the light that is dimmed, that is hidden, that seems to completely disappear on Good Friday.

I think about the silence and darkness of Tenebrae when I read Mark’s Passion, St. Mark’s version of the Crucifixion that we just heard.

You may recall that each of the Gospels offers a slightly different point of view—of Jesus, and also of his Crucifixion. In Luke’s Gospel there’s a lot more attention given to the political and theological aspects. Matthew presents the crucifixion and resurrection as one event, leaving no doubt that Jesus is the King of Kings. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is a champion, totally in control, the “true light who shines in the darkness.”

But in Mark’s Gospel, the version we heard today, it sounds like darkness has indeed overcome the light. Jesus is the innocent victim.

The great preacher & commentator Fred Craddock points out that in Mark’s Gospel, the verbs themselves show that all the action is “done to” Jesus. Jesus is betrayed and let down by his friends, the disciples. Jesus is arrested and taken away. His friends and disciples desert him. Jesus is taken to the high priest. He is interrogated, spit upon, and beaten. Jesus is bound and led away further. When Pilate tries to cut a deal with the religious leaders and release a prisoner, Jesus is passed over for Barabbas, the murderer. Jesus is handed over to others, and he is beaten again. He is made to carry his cross. He is brought to Golgotha. He is crucified.

Darkness comes over the whole land. Darkness seems to overtake the whole world.

Mark’s version of the Crucifixion is not an easy one to hear, but it’s an important one for us to hear because it’s so real. It’s true. And too many—close at home and far away in our world know what that darkness is like.

Just as we might wish we could pretend we’re at a beach in Florida and the pandemic is totally gone, we hear of people still getting sick, still suffering from strange effects of COVID-19, and some are still dying.  Over the last year, there have been some significant deaths in our church family and our extended church family. We see the results of colonialism and foreign policies of exploitation as we watch desperate people try to make it to the US border.  We see continued and increasing violence against women, people of color, and more and more shootings by the angry and disturbed. 

Darkness is real. The shadows touch our lives with sickness and disease, with addiction and mental illness. We like to think we have something to do with our own health, that we can stay in the light, we can move toward the light, if we try hard enough. Often, we can, for a while—but when someone young gets COVID or some other strange disease or nasty form of cancer, suddenly the light goes out and we there is darkness, uninvited and unexplained. Where is God when we can’t see him or feel him or in any way apprehend him?

Well, I go back to that liturgy of Tenebrae for a reminder.

One essential part of Tenebrae is the reading of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, often sung as the antiphon, “Christus factus est,” which our choir sings today. But they are words are prayed even in the darkness. The words are prayed especially in the darkness because they emerge from the shadows:

Christ became obedient for us unto death,
even to the death, death on the cross.
Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name
which is above all names.

There is something in that mystery, something in that movement of humility, self-offering, of suffering-with, that gives pierces the darkness, as though a knife were put through a black shroud, flooding the place with light. God doesn’t let the light go out even though we might not see it, just like at night the sun is still shining—it’s just on the other side of the world.

One of my favorite versions of the Tenebrae service follows the normal pattern of readings, music, and decreasing light. The candles are extinguished one by one. And as the lights go out, there’s a sadness that falls over the space. It is unspecific and large. It seems to include all of our pain, all of our heartache, all of our questioning. But then, as one become uncomfortable in this deep darkness, and one tries to adjust one’s eyes, there’s the faintest hint of light. One wonders if it’s in the imagination. But then it seems to be moving and approaching from behind. Gradually, slowly, silently… from way in the very back of the church, a little child comes, carrying a single candle. As the child moves through the space shadows dance all over the place, no longer threatening but animated with hope, with joy, with expectation.

The light shines in the darkness! It never went out. It just changed. It just seemed to go away. But here it is, faint but full; small but strong; vulnerable, yet eternal.

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to seek the light. We are invited to slow down, to set aside the calendar, and our “to do” list. For a few days, we might even put on hold our endless list of “shoulds.” Whether we spend time in this church, another church, or online with lots of churches, Holy Week invites us to notice the dark places in our lives, the shades and shadows and allow God to be there with us.

Even if we can’t feel the warmth of the light, even if we can’t get a glimpse of it yet, the faith of the Church assures us that “What has come into being in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-5)

Whether we heard the words at Christmas or at Easter, their truth shows us the way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, has not, and will not overcome it.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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