Easter's a pretty big holiday -- even if you're a Christian.
In our church (as in many others) there's a sense of celebration. After all, it's marking an important event, and the significance of that event. Christ rose from the dead, (as He said he would), and because He did, there is hope for us to do the same -- no matter who we are.
And while everyone turns out for the Easter service, not many attend the other half of the story -- the Maundy Thursday Tenebrae service. There are varying traditions for this service, but here's what we do in our church.
The purpose of the service is to recount the final days leading up to the crucifixion. Just as the Easter service lets us relive the hope and joy of those who first heard the news, the Tenebrae service reminds us of the utter hopelessness and despair Jesus' followers felt during those last days.
The Tenebrae (Latin for shadows) service brings home those emotions. In our church, at each major part of the story, the lights are dimmed a little more. It's already evening, so there's little light streaming through the windows, anyway. You can feel the darkness closing in as the story progresses and the lights go out, one by one.
The final part of the service is the stripping of the church. After the last words are spoken, all the portable elements of worship are removed. The candles, the paraments (the cloths hanging from the pulpit), the Bibles, the banners -- even the pastor's stole and the cross around her neck.
And when everything has been silently carried out, the communion table is draped with a black cloth. The darkened sanctuary has now become a tomb. The pastor, followed by the congregation files out silently.
Why would anyone go to such a downer service?
I go because it's deeply moving.
And I also go because it puts the joy of Easter into perspective. There's a big difference between being happy because everyone else is, and being happy because you've been sad and received some really great news. It's a longer emotional arc, which makes the joy that much sweeter.
Our Tenebrae service only draws about a third of the attendance of our Easter service. But here's a curious thing. Everyone who's attended our Tenebrae service keeps coming back year after year. They all say its one of the most moving services they've ever experienced.